PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Investigators from across the U.S. poured into the mountain town of Yarnell Tuesday to figure out why 19 elite firefighters perished in an out-of-control wildfire and whether human error played a role in the tragedy.
The monthslong investigation into the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11 will look at whether the Hotshot crew paid attention to the forecast, created an escape route and took other precautions developed after a similar disaster in Colorado nearly two decades ago.
The team of about 10 investigators from various agencies also will look at whether the crew should have been pulled out before the fire exploded.
Within hours Sunday, violent wind gusts turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable lightning-ignited forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.
In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters unfurled their foil-lined emergency shelters, but those offer only limited protection when in the direct path of a raging fire.
The federal government overhauled its safety procedures following the deaths of 14 firefighters on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain in 1994. Investigators found numerous errors in the way the blaze was fought.
“The reforms after Storm King were collectively intended to prevent that from happening again, which was mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew,” said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado.
“There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it’s almost haunting.”
Those changes included policies under which no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather.
“If you don’t have those things in place, it’s not advisable to deploy a team in the first place, because you can’t guarantee their safety,” Burton said.
The Hotshot team based in Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel.
But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours as “the wind kicked up to 40 to 50 mph gusts and it blew east, south, west – every which way,” said Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo.
“What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back and trapped them,” Scamardo said.
With the investigation just beginning, it’s not clear what help water- or retardant-dropping aircraft could have provided for the doomed crew.
One contractor, Neptune Aviation Services, had three aerial tankers making drops on the fire earlier in the day. But at the time the firefighters died, the planes had been grounded because of treacherous conditions, said chief executive Ronald Hooper.
“It wasn’t safe for them to be in the air at that time,” Hooper said. There were “severe winds, erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area.”
However, government dispatch logs show at least two other planes were flying over the fire at the time, one large tanker and one small one. There was also at least one firefighting helicopter in the air early Sunday afternoon.
Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said it is too early to say if the crew or those managing the fire made mistakes.
“The fact that they’re dead and that they had to deploy fire shelters tells us that something was seriously wrong,” Mangan said. But then again, he said, they may have been doing everything right, and “this just might have been a weather anomaly that nobody saw coming that happened too quickly to respond to.”
He said the crew members may have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.
“When you’ve got especially structures and residences involved, and you’ve got local resources, there’s a fair amount of social and political pressure, some of it self-generated by the firefighters, who want to do a good job,” Mangan said. “They don’t want to see a community burn down. They want to get in there.”
A team of fire officials drawn from across the country by Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, arrived in the area Tuesday to find out exactly what went wrong.
They plan to make their way into the charred fire scene and issue a preliminary report in the coming days, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.
On Tuesday, about 500 firefighters battled the mountain blaze, which had burned about 13 square miles. Yavapai County authorities said about 200 homes and other structures burned in Yarnell, and hundreds of people have been evacuated.
Wind even more powerful than the gusts that hit Sunday were forecast for Tuesday and could reach 80 mph, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Wallmann.
No part of the fire had been contained, and thunderstorms that could bring little rain and lots of lightning remained a major threat, said Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for the firefighting effort.
Takai said the firefighters know how to stay focused on their task, even while battling their grief.
“You got to get back on track, and they know that,” Takai said.