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Report Notes Poor Communication In Deaths Of Arizona Hotshots


Poor communication contributed to the deaths of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona this past June. That's just one of the findings of a long-awaited report on the Yarnell Hill Fire that was released yesterday. It was the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 80 years. The report lays out in detail what happened that day but it does not address why it happened or who was responsible. NPR's Ted Robbins was in Prescott, Arizona and he brings us the story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Deep in the report on the Yarnell Hill disaster is the term fog and friction. It's a term the military uses when things go wrong in battle - the fog of confusion caused by the chaos of war and the friction coping with unexpected events. That's as close as the report gets to explaining why late in the afternoon of June 30th the Granite Mountain Hotshots found themselves in a box canyon with nowhere to go as flames raced toward them.

MIKE DUDLEY: As the fire came into that drainage, the winds were pushing it so hard that the flames were laying horizontal.

ROBBINS: One of the report's authors, Mike Dudley of the Forest Service, told media gathered in the Prescott High School auditorium that the men didn't have a chance by the time they deployed their one-person fire shelters, shelters designed to survive a quick hit of heat and nothing more. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were found on the ground huddled together in a group. Some of their fire shelters were blown away.

DUDLEY: There was direct contact to the shelters from the flames going over that site, and we're talking about temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees.

ROBBINS: The Yarnell report says the crew began that day digging fire lines, leaving a lookout, the team's only survivor, Brendan McDonough, on a nearby hill - normal procedure. Later, the rest of the Hotshots ate lunch in the black. That's what firefighters call a safe area because it's already burned and won't burn again. Then they got a weather report - an early summer thunderstorm was building which would bring lightning and high winds. The crew left for another spot, a ranch house at the bottom of the canyon. But the report never says why.

STEVE PYNE: I mean, that is the fundamental mystery here. Why did they leave a safe zone to go to another place?

ROBBINS: Steve Pyne is a professor of fire history at Arizona State University and a former firefighter.

PYNE: What did that other place have that they didn't have. And there was no direct route in the sense of a road or a path. Why would you bushwhack?

ROBBINS: As they dropped down into the box canyon, the crew had to cut its way through scrub oak and brush. While they were doing, that they couldn't see the fire. They didn't know it had switched directions twice and trapped them. A radio transmission indicates supervisors thought they were on a road. There was no radio contact for a half hour. An airplane was flying above the fire but it couldn't drop its fire retardant on the crew because the pilots didn't know the location of the firefighters. The report recommends firefighters be given GPS units which transmit location. It also says the state of Arizona should clear brush in areas with heavy fuel loads. The Yarnell area hadn't burned in nearly a half century. The report blames no one for the tragedy. Instead, the authors said they want every wildland firefighter in the nation to read it and learn from it. Co-author Mike Dudley briefed family members on the report. He said he was moved by their reactions.

DUDLEY: Anger, frustration and just an overcoming sense of loss. It was a very emotional meeting both for the families and actually for us.

ROBBINS: The report could only detail events and recommend change. It couldn't provide all the answers. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.