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This weekend, the independent investigative team tasked with examining the Yarnell Hill fire and the last few hours of 19 hotshot firefighters’ lives released its final report.
The investigators found “no indication of negligence, recklessness actions or violations of policy or protocol” on the part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, Ariz.
Although there are no definitive answers, Kyle Dickman, a former hotshot and an associate editor of Outside magazine who is writing a book about the Yarnell Fire, hypothesizes that the hotshots were caught off guard by a second wind shift, which has now been documented in the team’s report.
“There were two wind shifts, and originally it was understood that there was only one wind shift” Dickman told Here & Now. “It seems to me and the investigators that Granite Mountain had seen this shift, but what they didn’t see was the second wind shift and that’s the wind shift that shoved the fire up into the basin in which they were killed.”
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were the only city-funded crew. Others hotshot crews have greater access to resources, drawing from county, state and federal funds.
Even though the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trained in half the time of other crews, there was no question about their experience.
“Those 20 members had 98 years of wildland firefighting experience,” Darrell Willis, wildland division chief and a co-founder of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, told Here & Now.
“One year these guys went out and they fought fires for 120 days,” Dickman added. “So it’s not as if this crew was inexperienced. Unfortunately I think it comes down to one poor decision and they were caught.”
The city of Prescott is determining how best to protect itself from fires, and whether that means recruiting another hotshot crew.
“I would say it’s really a split decision there,” Willis said. “And the city — to assume the responsibility — has got to determine, is it financially feasible, or is there another way to do this? Is there another way that we can defend our community other than have a hotshot crew?”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
During the weekend press conference in which investigators delivered their final report on the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, David Turbyfill, the father of Travis, one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed, interrupted to ask why the tents deployed by his son and others hadn't been improved in 13 years. Travis' mother added, help us. Give us the information we need to change this. But the report had very little about what in the end went wrong. It cited radios, a communication blackout.
But there still is no answer as to why the team left a safe area for one in which they became trapped. So what happens now? Should Prescott start a new hotshot team? Or should just they concentrate on fuel crews to clear debris and leave the hotshot firefighting to federal and state-funded teams? Prescott is the only city in the country to fund a hotshot team. Darrell Willis co-founded it. He is the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Division chief. And, Darrell, so sorry, again, for your town's lost. But what's been the reaction to this report?
DARRELL WILLIS: Well, I think it's mixed. And there is that 30-minute gap and no one can answer the question of why they moved. The only way that we can answer that is to talk to someone and all of our crewmembers died that day. So people will have opinions, but there are no facts.
YOUNG: Yeah. There was one crewmember who lived. He was the lookout. Let's bring in Kyle Dickman, associate editor for Outside magazine and a former hotshot himself. He's working on a book now about the Yarnell Hill fire and the hotshots. Kyle, welcome back. And when you heard the report delivered, was there something that jumped out at you, something you hadn't heard before, something that you felt was some sort of key?
KYLE DICKMAN: There were two wind shifts. And originally, I think it was understood that there was only one wind shift. So it seems to me and the investigators that Granite Mountain had seen this shift. But what they didn't see is the second wind shift, and that's the wind shift that shoved the fire up into the basin in which they were killed.
YOUNG: Yeah. Darrell, maybe the hard question - let's get it out of the way - which some may be asking, if they know that - your Granite Mountain Hotshots, that's the only city-funded hotshot crew of the 100 that are in the country. It all started after Prescott had a fuels crew. These are the people that clear flammable material around Prescott homes. But that fuels crew grew into the hotshot crew with five years of training by Eric Marsh. And we read about this in Kyle Dickman's article.
And this crew was intense. It was serious. It was lauded for saving homes. But as Kyle says in his article, they were trained in half the time of many other crews. Is there any sense that maybe they've gone out too fast, maybe a city shouldn't be training hotshot crews, maybe there be - it should be more part of a federal program, any sense of that?
WILLIS: Let me say that they did meet all the requirements for the inter-agency hotshot crew standards. We did a thorough review internally, and that crew had 98 years of wildland firefighting experience. Those 20 members had 98 years of wildland firefighting experience. So to say that it was too soon or that they shouldn't have been there based on those things, you know, that's an opinion. The facts bear out.
YOUNG: Well, and we should say that the report absolutely concluded that they had - that there was nothing that they did that is known that...
YOUNG: ...at all contributed to their deaths. And, Kyle, you write that the crew was almost hypersensitive about the fact that they were the only city-funded crew and, you know, other crews from across the country sort of challenge them and they stepped it up, you know, because of that.
DICKMAN: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that, you know, a hotshot community is pretty competitive. In a lot of ways, it's like a sports league. And these guys being the only city crew, I think they really felt that they had to prove themselves, and they did. You know, one year, they went out and they fought fire for 120 days. I can't remember. Darrell, maybe you can help. That was 2011?
WILLIS: I'm not sure if it was '11. The last three years, you know, they were out over 100 days on wildfire.
DICKMAN: And that's exceptional.
DICKMAN: So it's not as if this crew was inexperienced. Unfortunately, I think it sort of comes down to one poor decision and they were caught. And I think that's actually what the investigation lays out pretty clearly.
YOUNG: What happens now going forward? You say there's got to be something, a fuels crew. Are you hoping for a hotshot team?
WILLIS: You know, and - right now, I would - and my personal opinion is that we could do that. Now, I would hope that we would have some type of increased suppression capability during that summer wildfire season that we have. And, you know, there are so many aspects to this, the funding, the political aspect of it, the - getting to the point. It took us about seven years to get to that point right now. We're basically back to starting where we began in 2001.
YOUNG: Yeah. I guess the question is how do you and people there feel? Are the people who may be this has just been too painful, they, you know, can't stand the thought of, you know, another crew, you know, possibly being in danger? Or are people saying, no, in their honor, we're going to step up? I mean, what is the feeling there?
WILLIS: I think you've got both sides. And I would say - the people I've talked to said, when are you going to start it? This needs to happen right away. And then there's others that say, let's take a more cautious approach. So I would say it's really a split decision there. And the city, to assume the responsibility, has got to determine is it financially feasible, or is there another way to do this? Is there another way that we can defend our community other than having a hotshot crew? So, you know, I think it's going to take a lot of discussion to do that.
YOUNG: That's Darrell Willis, Wildland Division chief, part of the fire department there in Prescott, Arizona, with, obviously, a lot to think about going forward as they're still mourning the past, the recent past. Kyle Dickman, associate editor for Outside magazine, a former hotshot himself. He's working on a book about the Yarnell Hill fire. Kyle, Darrell, thank you so much for speaking with us.
DICKMAN: Thanks for having me.
WILLIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.