Nineteen elite Hotshot firefighters and a supervisor weren't communicating effectively when an Arizona wildfire trapped and killed them in June, according to a new 120-page report.
The report, by the Arizona State Forestry Division, assigns no blame and doesn't answer the most important question about the firefighters' deaths June 30 while battling the Yarnell Hill fire south of Prescott: Why did the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew leave the safety of an already burned area without a request to do so?
Investigators speculated that the crew members might have been "attempting to reposition so they could reengage," but they and a fire superintendent weren't communicating "in the sense of actually understanding one another's movements," said the report, which was released Saturday.
That was just one of several communications problems highlighted in the report — most critical among them a 33-minute blackout on June 30. As a result, "nobody will ever know how the crew actually saw their situation, the options they considered, or what motivated their actions," the report said.
Related: Read the full report (.pdf)
Jim Karels, the state forester of Florida, who led the investigation, reiterated at a news conference: "We don't know that information. We don't have it. That decision-making process went with those 19 men."
Throughout the incident, "personnel who communicated with the Granite Mountain IHC knew the crew was (safe) at that time and assumed they would stay there," the report said.
But the crew didn't, and as "winds increased substantially, the fire turned south and overran the Granite Mountain IHC," it said. The fire overcame the hotshots faster than they could deploy their fire shelters — burning 100 yards in just 19 seconds.
"The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable," it concluded. "Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol."
The 19 deaths were the largest loss of firefighters' lives since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The fire, which began June 28 with a lightning strike outside the town of Yarnell, burned 8,400 acres and destroyed 129 structures before it was contained July 10.
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First published September 29 2013, 6:34 PM