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.

More Info:

  Holly Neill report
  PowerPoint in HTML
The PowerPoint included here was presented to the Central Arizona Wildland Response Team (CAWRT) in March, 2016, in Phoenix, Arizona, by Alan Sinclair, a Type 2 Incident Commander. The PowerPoint is based in part on the following research. The presentation was a collaborative effort between Holly Neill and Alan Sinclair.

"Moving Forward With New Information"
A Narrative for the PowerPoint Presentation
By Alan Sinclair

I felt it was important to start this presentation by highlighting quotes from the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report (SAIR). I believe these quotes and the Charge to the Wildland Fire Community show investigators had the understanding that new information would continue to emerge in the years following the accident. The report stated that it was not intended to provide finished concrete answers and instead was meant to prompt discussion, learning, and the improvement of safety and resiliency. They understood sensemaking would be ongoing and social. I strongly believe that people discussing the events of that day should keep informed of new findings and consider the possibilities these findings suggest.

One issue raised by the report was that there was a 33-minute gap in communications from 1604 to 1637. Background radio traffic discovered by Holly Neill contains conversations between Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots acting as Division Alpha on the Yarnell Hill Fire, and (as of now) an unidentified person, that took place during the alleged 33-minute gap. In 2014 Holly Neill had Eric's voice in these recordings positively identified by people who knew and worked with him, including me. The context of the conversations is debatable as the recordings contain background radio traffic. There have been attempts to have the recordings cleaned and I hope in the future they will be easier to understand. I encourage people to listen to them and determine for themselves the importance of the conversations.

The link in slide 5 contains one of the conversations that began at approximately the 0:42 mark. I believe the importance of the audio is that it was not found until after the investigation, and even at this time its existence is not commonly known. It contains conversations that occurred in the last 45 minutes before the accident. Another separate conversation at 16:27 suggests that someone did know the crew was moving, although the SAIR stated that no one did.

I believe that when talking about things that have not been established as fact it is important to understand the difference between suggestive evidence and conclusive evidence. In attempting to make the complex understandable and popularize new research I run the significant risk of over-simplifying, misinterpreting or misleading. I attempt to be very conscious of the words I use, and the word suggestive has been a staple in my vocabulary when discussing new findings that relate to Yarnell.

The cut stobs illustrated in the PowerPoint presentation are suggestive evidence that Granite Mountain may have cut a P or personnel line. Stobs are broken branches or stumps, whether cut by chainsaw or otherwise. The cut stobs were found during four trips to the site between March 2014 and June 2015. I found a cut stob on June 29, 2014 while hiking with Holly Neill, who told me about the cut stob found in March of that year. It is my professional opinion that the stobs were chainsaw cut. Can I say for certain who cut them or when they were cut? No, but I do believe they should be closely examined. I was told by a former Granite Mountain crewmember that it would have been common practice for them to put in a P line. The Helms' ranch was identified as a "bomb proof" safety zone, and the route GMIHC was traveling was designated as an escape route by Marsh in several conversations. I believe that the cut stobs strongly suggest that they did put in a P line. They were found between the fatality site and the Helms' ranch.

I believe this is significant. Can I say that the Granite Mountain Hotshots cut the stobs? No, not conclusively. I do, however, believe that the possibility should be considered. In the ADOSH report the escape route to the Boulder Springs Ranch was noted in the section discussing errors made by the crew. It states that this escape route "had not been scouted, timed, marked or improved." This is a charge against the crew. The cut stobs suggest that charge may be unwarranted.

What does it matter? I have been asked this many times and am always surprised by the question. The Yarnell Hill Fire caused the greatest loss of life on an organized wildland fire crew in over a century. This has been the most significant wildland fire incident in my career. We need an accurate, thorough understanding of this fire to prevent something like this happening again. We utilize staff rides to historic battlefields and fire grounds as learning tools. It is a powerful experience to stand in a specific location and talk about conversations that were held, conditions that were observed, and decisions that were made there. We have an opportunity to help get the historical account of this fire right.

People will be talking about the Yarnell Hill Fire and the Granite Mountain Hotshots for decades to come. It is commonly believed that the crew threw safety to the wind and made bad decision after bad decision. I will not argue that bad decisions were not made but if the possibility exists that there were some good decisions made, they should be considered as well.