published Saturday, September 28th, 2013

Radio problems cited in deaths of 19 firefighters

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — A three-month investigation into the June deaths of 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona blaze cites poor communication between the men and support staff, and reveals that an air tanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the firefighters died.

The 120-page report released Saturday found that proper procedure was followed and assigned little blame for the worst firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.

All but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew died June 30 while protecting the small former gold rush town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, from an erratic, lightning-sparked wildfire.

While maintaining a neutral tone, the investigation found badly programmed radios, vague updates, and a 33-minute communication blackout just before the flames engulfed the men. Investigators did not consider whether better communication might have saved the men.

The report provides the first minute-to-minute account of the fatal afternoon. The day went according to routine in the boulder-strewn mountains until the wind shifted around 4 p.m., pushing a wall of fire that had been receding from the hotshots all day back toward them.

After that, the command center lost track of the 19 men. The firefighters either ignored or did not receive weather warnings. They left the safety of a burned ridge and dropped into a densely vegetated valley surrounded by mountains, heading toward a ranch. The report states that they failed to perceive the "excessive risk" of repositioning to continue fighting the fire.

The command center believed the hotshots had decided to wait out the weather change in the safety zone. They did not find out the men were surrounded by flames and fighting for their lives until five minutes before they deployed their emergency shelters, which was more than a half hour after the weather warning was issued.

Without the guidance of the command center, the men bushwhacked into a location that soon turned into a bowl of fire. The topography fostered long flames that bent parallel and licked the ground, producing 2,000 degree heat. Fire shelters, always a dreaded last resort, begin to melt at 1,200 degrees.

As the flames whipped over the men, a large air tanker was hovering above. But perhaps because of an early miscommunication about where the hotshots were headed, the command center did not know where to drop the flame retardant, the report said.

"Nobody will ever know how the crew actually saw their situation, the options they considered or what motivated their actions," investigators wrote.

Though the report points to multiple failures, investigators approached the incident "from the perspective that risk is inherent in firefighting." They recommend that Arizona official review their communications procedures and look into new technologies, including GPS, that might help track firefighters during chaotic situations.

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