The Yarnell Hill Fire

Ongoing research projects related to the disastrous Arizona fire of 2013 that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

John N. Maclean

More Info:

  Holly Neill report
  Alan Sinclair report
  PowerPoint in HTML
The Yarnell Hill Fire of June 2013 caused the greatest loss of life on an organized wildland fire crew in over a century, dating back to the Big Burn of 1910. The loss of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew -- the 20th member survived because he was a lookout -- prompted two official investigations. The reports, which were produced within a few months, flatly contradict each other and fall far short of being the final word on the fatal fire disaster. Other research efforts have followed -- by media, families of the victims, professional firefighters, and many others.

My involvement with the fire began while it was burning: a neighbor in Seeley Lake, Montana, called me repeatedly on the afternoon of June 30, the day of the fatalities, as his wife tried to get her 90-year-old mother to evacuate her home in Yarnell, Arizona. As the afternoon wore on, the news of the fatalities overtook the (ultimately successful) evacuation, just ahead of the flames. A few days later I was contacted by Holly Neill, a former wildland firefighter, whose early interest in the fire has turned into a full-time commitment -- she's also a founding member of Safety Matters: A Wildland Firefighter Forum for Change, a group of fire veterans advocating for wildland firefighter safety. She suggested we collaborate and I agreed. Many people have contacted me through this website and asked whether I'm doing a book on the fire: the answer is yes, but it's a long and challenging process. Since Holly and I began working together, we have expanded our numbers into an informal collaborative group. We come from different backgrounds and have different objectives, but we share results of our repeated trips to the fire site and other relevant places and what now are hundreds of contacts and interviews. Importantly, we have provided an essential check and double-check on each other's work.

At one early point Holly and I met with Jim Karels, who led the team that produced the first report, the Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR) [pdf]. During a discussion about new audio evidence including crew superintendent Eric Marsh's transmissions during an alleged 33-minute communications gap, Karels told us the SAIR was complete, would not be amended, and it was up to "people like you" to carry on. Investigators from the second team, contracted by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) [pdf], also said they would not reopen nor amend their report to reflect new information.

The abiding question of the fire is: Why did 19 hotshots leave a relatively safe position in a burned-over area on a ridgeline and hike down into a box canyon in the path of a wind-driven wildfire, in a time of extreme drought, at the height of the fire season, at the worst fire-danger time of day?

What we include here are reports of research undertaken to address several specific questions that remained after -- or grew out of -- the two official reports. We have looked into many questions big and small about the fire, and are continuing with these efforts. One report, by Alan Sinclair, is his clarification of a PowerPoint presentation he gave at a meeting of the Central Arizona Wildland Response Team (CAWRT) in March 2016 in Phoenix. Sinclair is a Type 2 Incident Commander. Three years to the month after the Yarnell Hill Fire, another fire, the Tenderfoot Fire, ignited in Yarnell, and Sinclair became the incident commander. The other report, by Holly, describes her research on Granite Mountain's escape route, and her discovery of audio records in December 2013 that contradict the SAIR claim about a "33-minute communications gap" by the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- which if true amounted to serious negligence on their part, because it occurred after they left their safe position. Despite initial skepticism there is now general agreement that there was no 33-minute communications gap. Holly and Alan also report on a years-long effort that turned up previously overlooked physical evidence near the fatality site.

We offer here likely theories where appropriate, along with specific responses to the points we raise about the official inquiries. We have provided links to our raw data so that interested parties can form their own opinions. These reports of ours, I think, clearly show what it can take in time and effort to reconstruct a catastrophic event or fatal wildfire, and why it should be done.