Arizona OSHA: State Forestry Division Neglected Hotshots' Safety in Yarnell Hill Fire

Arizona OSHA: State Forestry Division Neglected Hotshots' Safety in Yarnell Hill Fire

The agency is proposing $559,000 in fines, including $475,000 to be paid to the families or estates of the fallen firefighters.

On the night of June 28, a lightning strike ignited a small fire near the community of Yarnell in central Arizona. Two days later, a mile-and-a-half-long wall of fire with 50-foot flames charged toward Yarnell and a crack team of firefighters known as the Hotshots. By 5 p.m. local time on June 30, all 19 of the Hotshots were dead.

Nearly six months later, the Arizona State Forestry Division is under fire for its role in the tragedy.

According to Arizona OSHA, the State Forestry Division "implemented suppression strategies that prioritized protection of non-defensible homes and pastureland over firefighter safety."  

Arizona OSHA has cited the division for one willful and two serious violations of workplace-safety standards, and is proposing $559,000 in fines - including a total of $475,000 in penalties to be paid to the families or estates of the fallen firefighters.

"When the [division] knew that suppression of extremely active chaparral fuels was ineffective and that wind would push the active fire toward non-defensible structures, firefighters working downwind were not promptly removed from exposure to smoke inhalation, burns and death," Arizona OSHA asserts in worksheets detailing the alleged violations.

Arizona OSHA alleges that the State Forestry Division - which oversaw the Yarnell Hill firefighting efforts because the fire started on state-trust land - neglected the safety of more than 300 firefighters that the division employed or contracted to contain the blaze.

The agency's proposed penalties include $70,000 for one serious willful violation, based on Arizona OSHA's finding that the State Forestry Division failed to prioritize the safety of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew and dozens of other firefighters, leading to the deaths of the 19 Hotshots.

When thunderstorm activity and winds pushed the fire toward the Hotshots' position atop the Weaver Mountains on the afternoon of June 30, the division should have ordered the Hotshots to evacuate. Instead, it "allowed the [Hotshots] to work downwind of a rapidly progressing wind-driven fire past [3:30 p.m. local time]," Arizona OSHA asserts in its penalty worksheet.

"What should have been a planned retreat became entrapment at [4:42 p.m.] in which all 19 members died of exposure to inhaled smoke and burns," Arizona OSHA says. "Fire management's failure to re-evaluate firefighter safety based on continuously observed extreme fire behavior and expected and observed thunderstorm activity resulted in a complete failure to protect employees working downwind of the fire."

Arizona OSHA is proposing a $14,000 in total fines for two serious violations ($7,000 for each fine). The agency asserts that "critical incident-management personnel necessary to support the planning and implementation of fire-suppression operations arrived late or were absent from their assigned positions during the life-threatening transition [from initial-attack to extended-attack operations]."

Arizona OSHA also is proposing that the State Forestry Division pay $25,000 to each Hotshot's dependents or estates, for a total of $475,000 in penalties related to the tragedy.

 

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