Prescott Ponders Life After Yarnell Hill Disaster

An editorial appeared Sunday in the Prescott (Arizona) News asking a rather sobering question:  in light of $65 million in claims against the City of Prescott and $273 million in claims against various governmental entities following the Yarnell Hill Fire that claimed the lives 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots: “Will public entities be able to afford fire departments in the future?”

Citing 13 claims from the families of deceased firefighters and 34 from property owners, the editorial continued its line of questions:

  • Is this the beginning of the death of public fire departments?
  • If fire departments can be sued because they didn't stop a home from burning down, will municipalities be able to afford to continue to provide fire protection?
  • Is there any way any city in this country can afford to prudently hire and train a hotshot crew now?
  • How can a volunteer fire department be feasible in this day and age?
  • What will these lawsuit threats do to interagency agreements?
  • Will fire departments be willing to put their reputations and legal liabilities on the line for a neighboring community in the future?
  • Can they afford to take the risk?
  • Will there be new and possibly onerous laws? "All homes and businesses must install sprinkler systems." If it isn't legally mandated, will it become an issue when you buy your home/business insurance?
  • Will people be able to purchase insurance now if they live in a forest/chaparral wild land interface?
  • Will an insurance company demand defensible space in order to provide coverage?

Are those really the questions that need to be asked? Seriously????

I readily admit that I do not know many the details the Yarnell Hill fire. Wildland fires are not my strong suit to begin with. Most of my fire experience has been in an urban/structural environment. But from a Fire Law perspective, when I hear people asking “Chicken Little” questions like this after a disaster, another set of questions flash across my radar screen:

  • Were these firefighters and their supervisors properly trained in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?
  • Was the department properly staffed in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?
  • Were personnel properly equipped in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?
  • Was the incident being properly managed in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?

If the answers to the above questions are all yes, then as tragic as the disaster was – the $65/$273 million in claims should be of little concern. Firefighting is a dangerous business and bad things can happen even when we do everything right. The claims are defensible and there is no need for people to panic over the filing of claims and lawsuits.

ON THE OTHER HAND… if the answers to those questions are no… then there is a much more serious question that goes beyond $65/$273 million in claims to be asked: why not? Why weren’t personnel properly trained… why wasn’t the department properly staffed… why weren’t the firefighters properly equipped… why weren’t they being properly managed… ???

In my work, I see elected officials who time and time again make a conscious (usually well-intentioned but occasionally cynical anti-firefighter) decision to underfund their fire department. They make an assumption that there is no real downside to doing so. Based on experience and history they may plausibly believe that even if a disaster occurs others (fire chiefs) will be blamed/scape-goated and the decision-making role of the elected official will never be subject to public scrutiny.

As I said above, I do not know enough about the Yarnell Hill fire to know the answers to these questions. Perhaps underfunding was not an issue. Maybe the responders had everything they needed to do their jobs safely and properly. My point here is that too often we allow elected officials who make important decisions about the level of services that will be provided – to walk away from any responsibility for certain financially driven (er… politically driven) decisions.

One way officials get to walk away from responsibility is when the discussion is redirected away from legitimate questions about who made the decisions that set the stage for the disaster to happen and redirected to “Chicken Little” type questions like those being asked in the Prescott News.

Let’s be honest: underfunding a fire department – whether it results in poorly trained, poorly staffed, poorly equipped, or poorly managed firefighters – has a cost. That cost becomes due when a disaster happens. Hopefully the “Chicken Littles” can be kept at bay long enough to figure out what’s what in Prescott/Yarnell and whether officials responsible for any improper decisions should be held accountable.

Then again, perhaps this was a situation where a well trained, well staffed, well equipped, and well managed crew ran into a truly impossible situation… in which case defending against the $65/$273 million in claims should be a relatively easy matter.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Dalmatian90

    Nope…they didn't run into an impossible situation.  The dramatic weather change was well forecast — and included in the morning briefing.

    The AZ Forestry IMT team that was in charge should be nailed to the cross by their testicles for this one.  It doesn't absolve the leaders of the hot shot team either.  BOTH had a responsibilty to make sure they hot shots were in a safe area hours ahead of the weather change coming in.

    In the Storm King fire, the weather change was predicted but poorly communicated to the IMT and ground crews there.  The lessons should have been learned and NEVER repeated.

    I'm one who usually gives a lot of leeway to the fireground commanders and understand how complex and difficult major incidents can be to manage — but this one IMHO crosses the threshold from bad luck to manslaughter and its not even a close jump.

    This one they handed out the train schedule and proceded to stand on the tracks despite knowing what was coming and when, and the IMT watched them do it.


    • Dalmatian90

      So we had properly trained firefighters, properly equipped for the incident, and proper staffing for the incident; and we also had properly trained managers – on the IMT as well as on the Hot Shot Crew – and somehow these managers inexplicably screwed up?

  • Lars Fendermacher

    Read the report, it's on the internet.

    The shots were in a safe area and left it for reasons we will never know. The accident occured in a box canyon- one way in, one way out.

    Fireshelters are a last resort; if they are deployed, someone screwed up.

    I don't believe from reading between the lines of the report that the 10s and 18s were followed, which ultimately contributed to thses deaths.

    I agree, the command team needs to bear some measure of responsibility for this, however, that being said, the crew captains and the superintendant are responsible for what happened as are individual crew members.

    If it's predictible, it's preventable.

    My point of view is from having survived 34 years of wildland firefighting, and never having to deploy a shelter while leading my engine company on many California wildfires.

  • I have to agree with Lars I only have about half of his time on the fire ground but as a STEN everything I read indicates they failed to follow the 10s & 18s. The unknown of all of it is why they left the black.

    • So Lars and WldlndFF – if I hear you correctly this appears to be more of an operational error case, not a lack of training, equipment, wrong people in command, etc.

  • The communication problems should have caused a lot greater concern than what it did as the confusion as to where the crew was actually located. Some of what I have read indicated that there may have been some members of the crew on first assignment at their present classification. Not sure if that was true but if so they may have been over their experience level.

  • Wallyb132

    This was a tragic incident, to say the least. However this incident did not occur due to any major failures in the command system, or negligent action. As was stated above, there are question that we will never have answers because those answer perished with the Granite Mountain Hotshot team. Despite the radio confusion that has been noted many times, there was little or nothing command could have done even had they known the precise location of the crew due to the terrain and rapidly changing fire conditions.  

    Command did the right things once the mayday was declared, he held air support in the vicinity, ordered nearby resources to immediately begin attempting to locate the crew and attempted to maintain radio contact with the crew and ascertain there location.  

    Unfortunately the crew left the safety of the black area attempting to reach their evac point after they were notified by their spotter that there trigger point had been reach. At the same time that the crews trigger point was reach, so the was the spotters, the spotter also notified command that his trigger point had been reach and that he was retreating to his evac point. At this time nobody had eyes on the crew any longer. Due to their location, the crew was unable to see the location or progression of the fire.

    The location where the crew was found indicates, at least to me, that they were taking the shortest path to their evac point. They were walking along the base of a ridge, nearing the point of the ridge, not knowing that the fire was approaching that same point on the other side of the ridge and that was fire was moving quickly, estimated at 12 to 13 MPH. By the time the crew realized the situation they were in, it was too late. The time span from the when the crew declared that they were burning in and creating a deployment site, ie trying to burn out around themselves and deploy their fire shelters, to the last radio contact with the crew was only 4 minutes.  

    After reading all of the reports release to the public, combine with my knowledge and experience in firefighting, the conclusion I come to is this:   The decision to leave the black was that of the crew and the crew alone. Was this a bad decision? in the end yes, but only because the crew was not fully aware of the conditions surrounding them. Procedurally, was it the correct decision on the crews part, yes, but again, only because they were unaware of the fire conditions around them. Their instructions were to proceed to their evac point immediately and they were doing just that.

    If there were mistakes made, those mistakes. in my eyes, were choosing an evac point for the crew that required them to cross the path of the fire to reach safety and the failure to notify all fireground personnel of the rapidly changing weather conditions and the fire changing direction.  

    The location of the evac point chosen, at the time, was a logical choice, based on the crews location, the behavior of the fire and direction it was traveling. Unfortunately the chosen evac point for the crew was never reevaluated as the fire conditions began changing. This, to me, was the critical failure.  

    The change I would like to see come from this is a change to the command structure, to assign a person + aide or a team if necessary, to constantly monitor and evaluate the trigger and evac points for every ground crew in relation to current, up to the minute fire conditions and adjust them as needed when conditions begin changing.   Yes, this was a heartbreaking and tragic incident (that still draws tears to my eyes when i sit down and think about it).

    Did anybody screw up? No. Some times even doing things the right way, everything goes wrong. This is one of those cases.  

    The reporter for the Prescott News who wrote this story is extremely irresponsible. There is nothing to be gained from writing news stories like this, except to undermine an already (emotionally) devastated fire department and to incite discourse from a grieving public


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