Fire Report Details What Happened To 19 Ariz. Hotshots

Sep 28, 2013
Originally published on September 28, 2013 6:52 pm



From NPR West, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

Three months after 19 firefighters died on the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, the officials have released a long-awaited report detailing what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The report was given to the firefighters' families this morning, then released online and in a news conference in Prescott, Arizona.

NPR's Ted Robbins is there, and he's with us now to discuss what was the worst loss of life in a wildfire in 80 years. Ted, what does the report say?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Well, you know, look, in a nutshell, this long report boils down to everything went bad on June 30th. There were a series of events, which led to these firefighters deploying really pretty flimsy shelters, which just could not survive 2,000-degree temperatures. Those are last gasp efforts anyway to use those shelters. It provided a very detailed timeline from the time that the fires started to where lunch - the hotshots had lunch in a spot that was burned over, which meant it would not burn again. And then they left for another safe place, a ranch which was down a hill and into a valley.

And it was essentially they descended into the - into a chimney. And beyond that, its details. And some of the problems were that they had lost communication with the crew for 30 minutes. The supervisors thought the crew was somewhere else. It turns out there was a fire tanker above the crew somewhere in the area, which was just waiting to hear where they were so it could drop retardant on them. So just everything went wrong basically.

RATH: I understand the report makes recommendations. What are they?

ROBBINS: Well, some are for the state of Arizona, some are for firefighters nationally. One recommendation for the state is to do more brush clearing, remove some of the fuels which burn.

I mean, this area hadn't burned in 45 years. Better communications obviously, possibly putting GPS units, which transmit on firefighters' bodies. Better radio coordination between ground and air. It asked for some training - better training for everybody.

In fact, there's a 20-minute video that accompanies the report that we were shown, and it's online. And they were saying that they want every wildland firefighter to watch that video and read the report.

RATH: It sounds like there was not necessarily an awful lot new there. Was there a sense that something might have been left out?

ROBBINS: Absolutely. Well, for one thing, the report did not assign blame, and it said it would not assign blame. And, in fact, it very - except for pictures and names at the top of it, it didn't even name people by name. And so it also did not mention, except in passing, the possibility that shelters might be made safer.

A father of one of the young men who died told me that's what his goal is. We were told that that could be a wait problem to make better shelter. The biggest thing that it left out is why this crew left one safe place, crossed a burning area in which they could not see a fast-moving fire to reach another safe place, which they never reached.

RATH: So who then is this report for? Who does it go to to sort of implement what's in there?

ROBBINS: Well, it's for wildland fighters, as I said, and what to do, what not to do. And it's for the governments of - the state government in Arizona and for wildlands nationwide to implement some of these recommendations.

RATH: Ted, how have the families reacted?

ROBBINS: Well, as I said, we spoke with one of the fathers who was upset. And I'll tell you what, the news conference began an hour late because the team was briefing the family. And when the team came here to brief the media, they told us that the many members of the family were upset and angry at the report. And it could have been some of those questions, which were not answered, and the team says never will be.

RATH: That's NPR's Ted Robbins speaking with us from Prescott, Arizona. Ted, thank you.

ROBBINS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.