Granite Mountain 19 and the human factors on the fireline

My post below is in no way meant to “stir things up” or otherwise act as some kind of definitive answer as to what has happened.  Like anyone else, I am curious, and we, the public, have just as much right to know what happened as does the wildland firefighting community.  Articles like the ones linked below will undoubtedly pop up between now and the next several years, to be sure; it’s the nature of inquiry.  I am merely relaying these articles as I come across them as well as my thoughts as I put them all together.

Here is a link to an investigative article about the Yarnell Hill Fire and its infamous fatalities.  I’ll place below some quotes from that article that echo my sentiments.  In the end though, the Granite Mountain 19 never should have been at Yarnell Hill in the first place,  especially in that box canyon full of unburned fuel; the site of their entrapment, shelter deployment, and fatal burnover.  And even though they were there, they never should have left the black – the already-burned area they were in.

“The fire does what it wants to do,” explains Rod Wrench, a former member of the Del Rosa Hotshots and superintendent of the Little Tujunga Hotshots, both from California. “Until the weather changes or the fuel changes or the terrain changes, there isn’t much you can do.”

“Shelter deployment is a big marker, a big red flag,” says Sall, the Little Tujunga Hotshot who served five years as a crew member. “They should have never been in that situation to begin with.”

“The hell with the town of Yarnell,” Mangan says. “If [it has] to burn up to keep my firefighters alive, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

“That’s why the hell [there is] fire insurance,” says Wrench, who served on the Del Rosa Hotshots from 1967 to 1970 before becoming superintendent of the Little Tujunga Hotshots in California’s Angeles National Forest through 1973.

A former hotshot superintendent in Arizona who continues to fight wildfires says a wildland firefighter always must respect the fire he is facing, a principle he sums up with the expression: “Let the big dog eat.”

Nearly all reports state that the fuels at Yarnell Hill and in the immediate area had not burned in 40 years and has been in a drought for a decade.  In my mind, that raises a red flag, and sends mental images of a possibly explosive and imminent blowup.  It also tells me to stand aside and let it burn, that’s what Mother Nature wants it to do and there is no arguing with her – she always has the upper hand.

And just like the South Canyon Fire of 1994 on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain, the Yarnell Hill Fire should have been fought and contained while it was still small – it was less than 3 acres when it was first called in.  But the State of Arizona deemed it low on the priority list, “inactive” and “not much of a threat”.  Wildland firefighting is the single largest money spending venture there is in the natural resource field, so to stop a fire at small acreage would be to lose money, especially for the private wildland fire contractors.
Note: As of this writing, the U.S. Forest Service has depleted its wildland firefighting budget for this season, and there are still two months left in the season.

It also seems like a lot of the 10s and 18s, as well as LCES were either forgotten or largely ignored, for whatever reason (heat of the moment, panic, desperation, etc.).  Situational awareness should always be practiced, especially when your life is on the line; you cannot always depend on someone else to watch your back.  There isn’t a house, piece of land, nor firefight in the world worth dying over.

Did the Blue Ridge Hotshots pull out of the area as the thunderstorm moved in?
Did anyone else pull out or back out?  If so, why didn’t the Granite Mountain 19 do the same?  Was there a breakdown in communications?  As mentioned in the first article linked at the beginning of this post, it has surfaced that the Granite Mountain 19 and some of its members were not fully qualified at the NWCG levels to do what they were doing.  If those accusations are true, why were they even out there?
After Brendan McDonough left his post as a lookout (the wind shift was his trigger point at his lookout spot, as the blowup was reaching to and would eventually overrun the area he was stationed at) and was taken to a safe area with the Blue Ridge Hotshots via an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), why wasn’t a new lookout put in place on the ground?

In the end, as in all wildland fatalities, we’ll never know what exactly happened to the ones who perished – the dead can no longer speak for themselves.  Although their sacrifice was a noble one, it was unnecessary, as the town of Yarnell was already evacuated.  Stand aside and let the land burn during those raging blowups – that’s what it has always done and always will do.  Because in the long term, fire suppression always causes more damages than it prevents.
Note: One thing a lot of people are not paying attention to is how little the Yarnell Hill Fire grew in acres burned immediately following the fatal burnover incident.

Now, let the lessons learned from this truly be lessons learned.  Otherwise we are letting history repeat itself fatally:
In June of 1990, the Dude Fire blew up and trapped and killed 6;
July of 1994, the South Canyon Fire fatally overran 14 firefighters;
July of 2001 the Thirtymile Fire erratically blew up without warning, killing 4;
October of 2006, the arson-ignited Esperanza Fire blasted its way up steep slopes ahead of furious Santa Ana winds, killing 6 firefighters defending a vacant house;
now the Yarnell Hill Fire has killed 19.

In the 23 years since the Dude Fire, there have been 49 line of duty deaths on wildland fire incidents – all died saving a piece of land or a vacant home; things that are easily replaced and rebuilt.  Where do we draw the line? When will we truly apply those lessons learned and make some cold, hard and fast changes?  It’s high time for everyone, homeowners included, to start taking accountability – your house is now in a fire-dependent environment, it is no different than a tree or bush and at some point it may burn; that’s a cold, hard fact of life of living in a still-wild land.  It’s also time for firefighters to realize that you don’t have to try and be a hero every time the alarm is sounded; some things just need to burn and you can live to fight fire another day.

Note: Matt Oss has some very nice photos of the Yarnell Hill Fire, as well as a nice timelapse video of the blowup.  All can be seen on his website, Matt Oss Photography.

For further reading on some of the previous fatality incidents I’ve listed, check out
John N. Maclean‘s books:
Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire
The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal
and his latest, The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57.

Hopefully he writes one about Yarnell Hill.

“What will not change is the nature of wildlfire itself. It will forever keep its cunning, its power to destroy and defy expectations, and its ancient place as a creature of the wild.”
– John N. Maclean, The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder, and the Agony of Engine 57

Author: J. Crumpler

Grasslands ecologist. Native seedsman.

2 thoughts on “Granite Mountain 19 and the human factors on the fireline”

  1. I remember the storm that was rolling in that afternoon, actually. I was on the other side of the mountain from Yarnell, hiking 5 miles in when it passed over. Monsoon season was just starting for us and this wasn’t any major storm of concern, but the winds were definitely high and unpredictable. It didn’t deter us from our hike and I’m sure it didn’t deter them from their work either. Our fire crews in AZ are few and far between, so I can understand why they were pressing to get those boys out there despite any weather, political, or work experience concerns. Seasonals make up the majority of our hotshots and many of them are going to be “green.” That doesnt mean they shouldnt be utilized in an emergency situation. As for whether they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing… I could have told you that two days after the incident. Everybody involved on our district knew what happened. It was really a combination of things that accumulated to this disaster, like the article says, but as a usfs employee, I’m also going to call many of those speculations bologna.

All civil comments welcome.

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