The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

September 29, 2013

Experts: Arizona firefighter probe shows GPS need

PHOENIX — From the triple-digit temperatures the day before to the gusty winds that kicked up in a matter of hours, nearly every detail leading up the June deaths of 19 Arizona firefighters has been painstakingly spelled out by investigators.

Even though they say proper procedure was followed, the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and members of Congress have wasted no time in asking that lessons be learned from the deaths.

The challenge now, experts say, is figuring out how to prevent another tragedy as the threat of wildfire shows no sign of diminishing in the nation’s overgrown, drought-stricken forests and foothills. One way, they say, is to invest in GPS tracking technology for firefighters.

“Real-time information on the location of crews and the location of the fire, if those two things had been known, this accident could have been prevented,” said Bill Grabbert, a retired wildland firefighter, fire management officer and author.

The results of a three-month investigation released Saturday outline a series of missteps by the crew and commanders who were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire, but specific causes for the deaths are not included. Grabbert said such “milquetoast-type reports” are the result of federal legislation that opened the door to firefighters potentially being charged criminally for making mistakes while battling a blaze.

“It’s critically important that we learn from fires like this,” Grabbert said. “But with the guidelines for writing reports like this, you end up with things being soft-pedaled. That makes it difficult, or impossible, to learn lessons that can prevent fatalities.”

A year after the deadly Thirtymile Fire in Washington state, Congress approved legislation in 2002 requiring an independent investigation whenever a U.S. Forest Service firefighter dies in an entrapment or burnover.

In the Yarnell case, a team of local, state and federal fire experts conducted the investigation since the Granite Mountain Hotshots worked for the city of Prescott.

Brewer, in a statement issued Saturday, said she hopes the findings can further the healing process and give guidance for firefighters in Arizona and across the nation.

Other than reviewing communication plans and tracking firefighting crews, experts say the lessons from the Yarnell Hill Fire will come only as firefighters and their commanders put themselves in the shoes of the Granite Mountain crew to understand what they were facing that day and how it played into their decision-making.

The investigation revealed more than a half-hour of radio silence that occurred just before the Hotshots were overwhelmed by flames.

It’s not certain why the crew left what was believed to be a safe spot on a ridge that had previously burned and unknowingly walked to their deaths in a basin thick with dry brush. At the time they died, an airtanker was circling overhead, confused about their location. The command center thought the crew had decided to stay put in the blackened area.

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