July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters lost their lives in western Colorado when the South Canyon Fire blew up and overran them. Nineteen years later, 19-Granite Mountain Hotshots perished when the Yarnell Hill for blew up and cut off their escape route to their safety zone.
In the article, The Yarnell Hill Fire: A Review of Lessons Learned, Richard McCrea quickly points out similarities between the the South Canyon Fire and the Yarnell Hill Fire and posed the question: “Are we condemned to keep making the same mistakes far into the future?”(McCrea, 2014) This blog is supposed to focus on policy issues that relate to the material. The most obvious policy issue that comes to mind and one that I previously considered when looking at these two events in different classes was fire suppression and fire exclusion. The policy of suppressing every fire to save resources. What is to blame for the two largest losses of life since the Big Burn of 1910?
Humans always want to find the linchpin that ties an entire tragic event together. If this one thing would have gone the other way…. But through my experience it is usually a series of small errors or miscalculations that create the event. In the case of these two fires, both were described as low intensity “skunking around” fires when the firefighters arrived on scene. The South Canyon Fire had burned for a couple days unattended before anybody ever got to it. In my opinion, this lulled the firefighters in both situations into a level of comfort with the fire. They understood its behavior and understood what they should expect from it. Both situations had spotty communications with upper levels of command. In South Canyon, the Grand Junction District did not relay a high wind weather warning that significantly changed the fire behavior. Weather reports in Yarnell Hill were received, but might have been misunderstood with different events on the ground.
Both crews conducted actions that they either were not comfortable with, or what appeared to be to re-engage the fire by leaving a safe area. It is hard to speculate why the Granite Mountain Hotshots did what they did because there were no survivors to defend their decisions. However, firefighters go to extreme lengths to protect property and life. It is very likely that the Granite Mountain crew left their position of safety to try to get into a position where they could again help the city of Yarnell. Both crews were fighting the fire from up slope. McRea points out that 80% of overburn incidents happen while fighting a fire from up slope. At both events, weather changed the fire behavior that neither crew expected could happen. Both fires increased from low intensity to high intensity with a rate of spread of approximately 12 MPH. This all culminated into circumstances that led to an extraordinary loss of life.
Are we condemned to keep making the same mistakes far into the future? I think the answer is yes, so long as we continue sending men and women up mountainsides to protect other human life and property from the ravages of fire, we will continue to lose lives in the process. This is not to say we should not strive to keep all our firefighters safe and healthy, but these chains of random events will align again to create other such situations.
It is a difficult thing to summarize two tragic events such as these into 450 words or less; please excuse the length of this post as I tried to summarize while still paying respect to those lost.
2014 WFSTAR South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain Pt. 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqWa7QhhkMg
2014 WFSTAR South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain Pt. 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FZ98XJDzj0
America Burning: The Yarnell Hill Tragedy and the Nation’s Wildfire Crisis
2014 WFSTAR: Yarnell Hill Fire
McCrea, R. (2014). The Yarnell Hill Fire: A review of lessons learned – International Association of Wildland Fire. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from https://www.iawfonline.org/article/the-yarnell-hill-fire-a-review-of-lessons-learned/