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Systemic Safety and Planning Problems Led to Yarnell Hill Deaths

Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer

A long-awaited report Wednesday on the Yarnell Hill Fire from last June finally provided at least some answers as to how — and more importantly why — 19 hotshots died. Arizona Public Radio’s Howard Fischer takes a closer look.

The big news from the meeting of the state Industrial Commission was the $559,000 in penalties against the state Forestry Division for violations of various worker safety laws. But, what the report also did was provide some details of exactly how those firefighters ended up trapped in a chaparral-filled canyon. More to the point, it became an examination of what went wrong. Marshall Krotenberg, who led the investigation by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, said one problem he found was that the Forestry Division had not filled two key positions, including a safety officer.

“The safety officer’s role is purely safety,” said Krotenberg. “They’re not involved in production, caught up in the stresses associated with resources to be protected. Their sole role is firefighter safety. So it’s possible — and we would like to hope that a safety officer performing their function would have made a difference that day.” 

Krotenberg said he also found that the Forestry Division failed to properly plan and implement proper fire suppression, especially as the blaze spread. But, he said the most serious of the violations was exposing firefighters to unnecessary risk.

“The employer-implemented suppression strategies that prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety,” said Krotenberg. 

But, that was only part of the problem; there also was the approaching thunderstorm.

“The storm was anticipated, was forecasted. Everybody knew it. Everybody on that fire knew there was a thunderstorm coming and they saw it. There was no plan to move folks out of the way of southerly wind flows until it occurred, until it was already too late. It became an emergency because of bad planning,” said Krotenberg.

Sitting in the audience was Juliann Ashcraft whose husband, Andrew, was one of the hotshots who died that June afternoon. She came for answers.

“I mean, to us, like I said, it’s not a story. It’s a real-life situation,” said Ashcraft. “My kids don’t have their dad here. I don’t have my husband to grow old with. So to me it’s, I’ll do whatever I have to do to get answers.” 

And Ashcraft said Wednesday’s report provided answers which had not come from the Forestry Division itself. Its own report concluded that the judgments and decisions of the organizations managing the fire were “reasonable.” Ashcraft said she knew each of the firefighters and how well they did their jobs. 

“So it didn’t make sense to say we blame them for everything,” she said. “I knew it was an incident-command issue. I’m not trying to point a finger at any one person in incident command. I just know that the problem came from complete lack of organization and communication from the people that should have been in control of the fire.”

Neither the Forestry Division nor the governor’s office would comment on the report.

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