Arizona OSHA Pointing Finger at State Forestry Division for Hotshot Deaths

Dec. 5, 2013
Yarnell hill fire

Nearly six months after 19 Arizona firefighters died while trying to contain the Yarnell Hill fire, Arizona OSHA is accusing the Arizona State Forestry Division of workplace-safety violations that contributed to the tragedy.

The 19 firefighters were part of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew and, at the time of the tragedy, had been hosted by the Prescott (Ariz.) Fire Department. The Forestry Division contracted the Hotshots to battle the 2,000-acre wildfire.

Arizona OSHA is proposing a total of $559,000 in fines for one willful violation and other violations of workplace-safety standards, according an article in the Arizona Republic. The fines include up to $25,000 per firefighter death to be paid to the dead firefighters’ dependents or their estates, according to the article.

In September, a team of local, state and federal officials and independent experts issued an accident-investigation report, which concludes that the 19 Hotshots were “traveling through an unburned area toward a safety zone when a rapidly advancing fire of great intensity overtook them.” Responders found the fallen firefighters about 600 yards west of the Boulder Springs Ranch (a known safety zone) near the community of Yarnell in central Arizona.

In the moments leading up to the tragedy, the wildfire had shifted direction from northeast to southeast and was “aggressively pushing toward Yarnell,” according to investigators, who concluded that wind gusts from thunderstorms in the area fueled the fire’s intensity and pushed the fire toward Yarnell and the Hotshots.

Investigators admit that they aren’t sure of the firefighters’ exact path in the moments prior to the tragedy, and they seem perplexed as to why the crew took the course that it did on the afternoon of June 30. The report suggests that the Hotshots, who were on foot, had been traveling southeast on a two-track road near a ridge top and then decided to descend into a box canyon toward the Boulder Springs Ranch.

“The fire’s extreme speed of 10 to 12 miles per hour eliminated any opportunity for the crew to reach the safety zone or return up to the canyon rim,” the report concludes. “The crew had less than two minutes to improve a shelter deployment site by using chain saws and burning out. The crew was deploying their fire shelters close together in a small area when the fire overtook them. The deployment site in the box canyon was not survivable because heavy brush caused direct flame contact, and temperatures exceeded 2,000 F as the fire swept through the site.”

The investigation team concluded, among other things, that the Hotshots were “fully qualified, staffed and trained,” and had met their work/rest guidelines as well as all applicable operational guidelines.

“The fire’s complexity increased in a very short time, challenging all firefighting resources to keep pace with the rapidly expanding incident,” the report says.

The report also notes that although there had not been a wildfire in the Yarnell Hill area in 45 years, the region “was primed to burn because of extreme drought, decadent chaparral and above average cured-grass loadings.”

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