According to the latest reports of forestry officials, the nineteen firefighters killed in Arizona earlier this week did not have an escape route established that would have allowed for evacuation of the entire group to safe ground.
Official safety practoces require fire crews to designate a place they can retreat to if the fire begins to overtake them. That was not the case in the Yarnell Hill fire tragedy this past Sunday. Nineteen bodies from the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were located near their emergency fire shelters, prompting officials to conclude that the team was overtaken by the wind-driven flames. Art Morrison, a representative with the Arizona State Forestry Division, told reporters that “Obviously it wasn’t a big enough open field … if they had to deploy their shelters.” “They were too close to heavy fuels, so they got overrun,” he said.
Being engulfed by a fire you are working to put out is a firefighter’s worst nightmare, but not an uncommon fate: of the 1,000+ deaths among wild land firefighters in the past century, two-thirds occurred during “burnover,” when a fire consumed crews.
Over the past weekend, a fire had already burned through half of Yarnell, a small town in Arizona, when the winds turned. At about 4:30 p.m., fire supervisors lost radio contact with the crew. The fire crew had been cutting lines at the front end of the fire, the most dangerous zone to be, officials said. Putting a crew at the head of a fire is a highly atypical tactic.
“Overall, we don’t try to get out ahead of the fire and try to fight it,” said Don Smurthwaite of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Ground tactics generally involve flanking a fire, he explained.
The reason for this is because firefighters at the head of a fire don’t have any choice but to back up from oncoming flames, and nowhere to go but into the unburned zones ahead that contain more raw fuel to feed the blaze. Firefighters typically talk of fighting with one foot “in the black,” meaning standing on already burned landscapes that give them a non-flammable escape route. This has been a standard practice since early in the 20th century, when labor-rights advocates and workplace injury attorneys helped make the safety of human lives take priority over the protection of property.
This weekend’s deaths mark the largest loss of wildland firefighters since 1933, and highlight how incredibly dangerous firefighting is. Even when crews follow the most stringent safety protocols, an unexpected turn in the wind can nullify those careful precautions.
In burnovers, usually the only thing protecting firefighters from the heat and flames is a portable fire shelter, included in the packs that every crewmember carries. These tent-shaped devices quickly pop open and allow the user to crawl inside. The aluminum foil laminate repels a certain amount of heat – but they are not fool-proof. In fact, the shelters are most effective against rapidly-moving fires that pass over rather quickly, and not intended to endure severe heat or direct flame exposure. Investigators report that some of the firefighters deployed their safety-shelters, while many others were killed in the open.
Because of the unpredictable nature of shifting winds, every tactical decision made by fire managers must include a safe alternative in case conditions shift. Michelle Ryerson, a fire safety manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, explained that fire commanders use a risk management process that takes into consideration a whole set of “what if” scenarios. “What if we have a wind shift and this is where we have folks?” she said. “There is a plan for that.”
A fuller investigation will be launched once the memorial services wrap up and the blaze is fully extinguished. The U.S. Forest Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will all likely be taking part in the inquiry.
“These investigations can become, ‘Let’s find the guy who made the decision. Let’s hang him out to dry,'” said Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Assn., a national advocacy group for firefighters that is based in Idaho. “It’s a terrible thing to do to say, ‘You make a split-second life-or-death decision on something like a wildfire, and if someone dies, we will hold you responsible.'”
Judd’s organization is working to overturn a 2002 federal law requiring the inspector general’s office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate any time Forest Service employees die in the type of blaze that killed the Arizona firefighters.
But Tom Harbour, the national director for fire management at the U.S. Forest Service, clarified that the investigation would not be focused on assigning blame, but rather in determining what went wrong so future tragedies could be prevented. As he emphasized, “There is no wrong to be found here. When one firefighter dies, we all feel the pain. The only reason we take a look at these accidents is to try to find out how we might go another 80 years — hell, I hope we go another 100 years — before we might have another of these tragedies.”