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Monday, September 30, 2013

Questions Remain After Final Report On Hotshot Deaths

Unidentified members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Ariz., pose together in this undated photo provided by the City of Prescott. Some of the men in this photograph were among the 19 firefighters killed while battling an out-of-control wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday, June 30, 2013, according to Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years. (City of Prescott, Ariz.)

Unidentified members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Ariz., pose together in this undated photo provided by the City of Prescott. Some of the men in this photograph were among the 19 firefighters killed while battling an out-of-control wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday, June 30, 2013. (City of Prescott, Ariz.)

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.

It’s not as if this crew was inexperienced. Unfortunately I think it comes down to one poor decision and they were caught.

– Kyle Dickman

“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?”

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Guests

  • Darrell Willis, wildland division chief for the fire department in Prescott, Arizona. He’s also co-founder of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
  • Kyle Dickman, former hotshot firefighter and associate editor at Outside magazine. He tweets @KyleDickman.

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