june 2014
By Richard C McCrea

On the afternoon of June 30, 2013, nineteen firefighters perished in a major fire blowup on the Yarnell Hill Fire (YH). This blaze occurred on a rugged steep mountain range in heavy brush fuels, near the town of Yarnell, Arizona. The firefighters that were entrapped and burned over were from the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew (GMIHC). The YH fire situation rapidly transitioned from a low complexity fire to a very high complexity fire due to the increased fire behavior and values at risk.

When I accepted the assignment to craft an article on YH, I knew it was going to be a difficult subject to write about, and I expected to find new insights into lessons that could be learned. As my article formed into a first draft I was not at all happy. There is a theme, often hidden, in every story and I was struggling to find it. Then it dawned on me like a fir tree exploding and crowning out on a mountain side. The real story is YH was much like many other entrapments in the last 20 years and the mistakes made are nothing new. I might as well have been writing about the South Canyon Fire of 1994. Other reviews of entrapment fires during the last 20 years have pointed out many of the same deficiencies in team management and safety practices. Are we condemned to keep making the same mistakes far into the future?

A view from the ridge top into the deployment site. Helm’s Ranch is in the distance. The dozer line in the center of the photo points to the site. March 14, 2014. Photo: Holly Neill.

The Granite Mountain IHC Entrapment and Burnover Investigation report, prepared by Wildland Fire Associates for the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH), identified several deficiencies in safety practices and team management that directly contributed to the incident.

• Fire behavior was extreme and the YH fire continually exceeded the expectations of fire and incident managers, as well as firefighters.

• Arizona State Forestry Division (ASFD) failed to implement their own extended attack guidelines and procedures, including an extended attack safety checklist and Wildland Fire Decision Support System (WFDSS) complexity analysis and associated risk assessments.

• The incident management decision process failed to acknowledge that chosen strategies were not succeeding.

Map of the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ route up and route down on June 30, 2013.

ASFD also failed to give clear instructions to the Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) and ensure that the IMT understood the objectives. The instructions would have been in the form of a wildland fire situation analysis (WFSA) or clear written delegation of authority letter. On YH the planning process lagged far behind a rapidly changing situation. Qualified personnel were sometimes not available to complete necessary assessments and tasks. At that critical juncture the IMT should have considered a disengagement from a full suppression type fire, especially after initial attack and extended attack efforts had already failed.

Other data compiled for the ADOSH report included a review of fire fatalities from burnover entrapments from 1990 to 2013. This review looked at common denominators during entrapment fires and at fuels, weather, topography, fire behavior, and firefighter and fire team factors. The results of this review showed that the predominant cause of entrapments are fire crews working in mountainous terrain, uphill from a fire, when a sudden upslope fire run entrapped them. In fact the data shows that about 80% of the fatalities on fires from 1990 to 2013, due to entrapments, occurred due to the situation of firefighters working upslope from a fire. This situation was repeated on the YH fire. The GMIHC was working upslope from the fire, when thunderstorm winds turned the winds and pushed the flames to the south, and the flames channeled up mountain canyons and slopes enveloping the crew.

IMT’s need to take advantage of fire behavior and weather forecasting tools and support that is available, especially during periods of elevated fire danger combined with drought and adverse weather conditions. Rapidly changing conditions and potential extreme fire behavior should be carefully evaluated, and tactics and strategies adjusted accordingly. Specialists in fire behavior predictions and fire weather forecasting can be ordered as needed and virtual or phone assistance may also be obtained.

The key to managing a rapidly escalating fire situation such as YH, would have been to conduct a WFSA, which would have assisted the team in evaluating the situation, objectives, risks and strategies. The incident complexity analysis can be completed using a computer based system (through WFDSS) or using complexity analysis tools available in several handbooks including the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG). The IRPG has a simple worksheet with 18 factors to evaluate, which can be done quickly and easily with a pen on the hood of a pickup. Field firefighters (Crew Bosses, Division Supervisors etc.) also need to conduct the same type of assessment and make adjustments to tactics and safety zones and escape routes. It’s a good common sense approach.

Federal fire policy stipulates firefighter and public safety is the first priority in every fire management activity. If this basic policy is followed then there will be times when full fire suppression will not be an option. Fires will have to be allowed to burn meaning the potential loss of natural resources and threats to values at risk such as homes and farms. Involving Agency Administrators (AA) or land managers on incidents is a must. AA need to understand that an IMT may have to make radical strategic changes, including modifying plans to include something less than a full suppression strategy. Acres may be lost, and structures burned in order to keep firefighters safe.

If an IMT finds that the fire situation is spiraling out of control, they need to have a backup plan or implement a redeployment of some kind. There is no cookbook manner of conducting redeployment because of the many variables including fuels, weather, topography, and anticipated fire behavior, values at risk and firefighting resources that are available. The IMT should discuss and perhaps even sketch out a redeployment type plan when faced with a rapidly escalating fire situation. Every situation will likely be different and require adaptation at all levels. A redeployment could run the full range from evacuation of all firefighters (FF) and the general public with literally no fire suppression occurring for a few hours or days, or simply moving some or all FF into safety zones. Other potential actions that should be considered are moving fire crews to topographic locations where tactics are more likely to succeed, especially where they can access crew transports, or standing down FF in the middle of the burning period and waiting for more favorable conditions when temperatures cool off and humidities rise.

Fatigue was probably another factor that influenced decisions on YH. There are guidelines and rules for maintaining proper work/rest, but IMT’s need to plan for reasonable deployment of overhead and FF so as to not overly tax them. There are other management actions that could be considered such as night shifts or split shifts, so FF don’t have to work in the heat of the day. This also allows for a better chance that tactics might work and be successful.

Perhaps localized training simulations are needed where fire teams work with AA’s, and local government to manage blowup type fire scenarios. Better yet design computer programs that would employ audio and video components, similar to aircraft flight simulators, to train personnel on how to make decisions during difficult situations.

Fire chiefs and incident commanders need to get into the habit, during fire assignments, of taking a 20 minute break every day about noon to complete the Incident Complexity Analysis in the IRPG. That would only take a couple of minutes and should give insight into their current situation. Then they should ask themselves the following; is there a reasonable expectation that the fire team or crew will succeed in their mission during the current operational period, with no injuries or loss of life? With that insight in hand, adjustments to tactics and strategies can be implemented.

Wildland urban interface (WUI) is a major problem that is only going to get worse, and some communities, homeowners, and politicians will continue to push firefighters to act on every fire and not to disengage from any given fire situation. In addition some home owners are filing lawsuits against wildland fire suppression agencies over the loss of property and structures, which further complicates the situation, and this trend is going to get worse. The wildland fire culture has a real “can do” attitude, and many FF find it nearly impossible to disengage from a fire. We need to change the fire culture and better educate ourselves and the general public that safety comes first, and when blowup fires occur that some homes will have to be allowed to burn. Homeowners in the WUI need to be told and retold that it’s their responsibility to reduce the fuels around their structures.

Current fire policy and training is probably adequate, and fire organizations don’t need to rewrite policies and manuals. Instead a new culture is needed in the fire world that emphasizes safety and working smart. Throwing FF at raging infernos on steep mountain slopes is generally a hopeless task, that wastes scarce resources and money, and puts fire crews at risk.

Ground level view of the deployment site. The deployment site fence and flagpole can be seen in the bowl. March 14, 2014. Photo: Holly Neill.

There some changes that can be made fairly quickly, but it would take several entities working together to make it happen. This includes:

• FF resources (fire trucks, crews, dozers etc.) need to be tracked in real time, using global positioning systems. This could be done using smart phones, computer tablets and appropriate software, but it will require that standards be developed across the board by emergency responders at the Federal, State and local level.

• A similar effort needs to be undertaken to provide compatibility and standardized mapping systems.

• Reemphasize to upper level managers the fact that fighting fires in WUI areas is extremely dangerous and wildland crews are often not equipped nor trained to work in this environment.

In the mountains near the city of Yarnell Hill Arizona, a vigorous new growth of shrubs and grasses has started to return to this scorched landscape as the land heals. In the aftermath of YH we sort through the reports, the clouds of ash, blackened stumps, charred homes, and the general hubris of public debate, hoping to chart a better way. Let’s hope our communities and citizens, and leaders can have a spirited debate and come up with solutions that work.

Skookum is a native American word used by some tribes in the Pacific Northwest, which means someone that could be counted on and reliable and hard-working. We need skookum leaders that will make wise decisions or we are condemned to repeating the same mistakes and a YH type tragedy will happen again.

…Sometimes checklists can sort through the clutter. But lists cannot be too long and they have to be memorable. The lessons of history reveal human character, not natural laws. Their true lessons are such things as the fragility of knowledge, the tenacity of ignorance and fantasy, and the appreciation that wisdom relies on character rather than information. Flawed judgment is more often a source of error than faulty equipment or protocol. Humility matters as much as know-how.

Stephen Pyne, Proceedings of 3rd Fire Behavior and Fuels Conference, October 25-29, 2010, Spokane, Washington, USA. International Association of Wildland Fire.

About the author

Rich McCrea works as a wildland fire management consultant and freelance writer. During his career, he worked 32 years with the Department of Interior in fire management and forestry. Outfitted with a degree in Forestry, he started his career as a seasonal employee with the US Forest Service as a forestry technician and member of the Helena Hotshot Crew. McCrea has considerable experience working with incident management teams including over 20 years’ experience as a qualified fire behavior analyst. He assisted in the preparation of the Granite Mountain IHC Entrapment and Burnover Investigation for ADOSH, by completing a review of entrapment-fatality fires from 1990 to 2013.