Yarnell Lessons Slow To Emerge

Mar 31, 2014

For this story I assumed there were lessons to be learned from the Yarnell Hill Fire. But when I called Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University, he said, “for all of the sort of graphic and horrible qualities of the fire that made it so compelling to the general public, I don’t think it taught the fire community anything.”

P.J. Pickett teaches a wildfire basics class.
Credit Laurel Morales

Pyne said there was nothing new about the Yarnell Hill Fire. Incident commanders have long dealt with drastic changes in weather, homes built near dry desert fuels, and the group mentality of tight-knit crews that don’t question their leaders.

“There have been nearly 20 years of effort to tell them that’s not acceptable,” Pyne said. “This is not the moral equivalent of war and you’re fighting to the death. This is a job.”

Pyne said the report commissioned by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health questioned Incident Command’s strategic decisions.

“Why did you have crews?” Pyne asked. “They should’ve been withdrawn. I mean what were they going to do. You’ve got hand crews. They can’t protect houses. You need engines. You need water. We know a lot about keeping crews relatively safe. It appears that some of those guidelines simply weren’t followed for reasons we don’t understand yet.”

Many firefighters who attended the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy are left asking these questions too. Each year hundreds of firefighters across the country travel to Northern Arizona to train for the coming year. For many, the Yarnell firefighters were brothers and friends.

“It was more than close to home; it was home," said Academy Incident Commander Pete Gordon.

Gordon said that fire won’t change much in their instruction.

“And I’m not saying that as if it’s not meaningful or important,” he said. “By all means absolutely it is and it affected every one of us. While it won’t change we’re certainly committed and maybe more motivated to maintain both the quality and the style in which the academy delivers. We’re just going to be more deliberate.”

Eric Marsh started this academy in his living room 12 years ago. Marsh, the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, died along with all but one of his crew members last June.

Travis Dotson was one of Marsh’s students. Today Dotson works for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Dotson says so much was learned from the 1994 Colorado South Canyon Fire when 14 firefighters died, but it took several years for those lessons to be taught in academies like this one. He said the same will be true for Yarnell.

“The lessons at this point for the fire service aren’t known. I think they’re still very very personal for each firefighter,” Dotson said.

For Dotson all this has been humbling because he said he’s not a better decision maker than Marsh. As far as changes to the fire service nationwide, federal officials will have to approve those.

“I’m confident that as a fire service things will change because we have a record of doing that but right now I think we’re still in the grieving stage,” Dotson said.

Fire experts said Yarnell has a bigger lesson to teach to the public. Homeowners have a responsibility to examine the risks of building near a dry dense forest in times of drought and climate change.