Story by Laurel Morales
The Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters last summer. Since then, investigators have written two reports - one more damning than the other - over findings of what led to the deaths. And as a dangerous fire season approaches, possible lessons learned from the Yarnell tragedy are being examined.
"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," said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University.
Pyne suggested there was nothing new about the Yarnell 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," he 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? They should’ve been withdrawn.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," he said. "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 attend the Prescott 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 Incident Commander Pete Gordon, who runs Arizona's wildfire academy - the first one since Yarnell.
He said that fire won't change much in their instruction.
"And I’m not saying that as if it’s not meaningful or important. By all means absolutely it is and it affected every one of us," he said. "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."
It’s deliberate lessons like these.
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. He said 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," he said. "I think they’re still very very personal for each firefighter."
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," he said.
Fire experts say 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.