Yarnell Evacuation

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The evacuation of the town of Yarnell during the Yarnell Hill Fire was chaotic and fraught with problems. That’s according to a report in the Arizona Republic, which reveals that a dozen residents complained about the evacuation and experts agree that there were problems. Anne Ryman, a reporter who worked on the story, will talk about the issues with the evacuation of Yarnell.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Much of the fallout from last summer's Yarnell hill fire focused on the deaths of 19 members of a hot shot firefighting crew. But an Arizona Republic investigation is looking at concerns over how the town of Yarnell was evacuated. Joining us now are reporters Anne Ryman and Sean Holstege, reporters. Good to have you both here, and thank you very much for joining us. Great work, by the way. It must have been an exhausting job going through the information. Let's start with basics, though, describe the evacuation efforts during that fire.

Anne Ryman: The evacuation efforts were very chaotic. I mean, all evacuations are chaotic to an extent, but this one really, the people had very little time to get out. And they were told early on in the day, you might have to evacuate, and prepare to evacuate, and that when the final evacuation order came out, shortly after 4 o'clock, people were scrambling, and people were leaving, and fire was coming up to their homes.

Ted Simons: The evacuation was not early enough? Was that clear from what you looked at?

Anne Ryman: The fire experts that we talked to really thought that the evacuations should have been ordered sooner. The people should have had more time to get out. And keep in mind, most of Yarnell, a lot of them are senior citizens. So, that even is a more reason to give the people more time.

Ted Simons: That really is a factor there. And fire department, 9-1-1 dispatchers, from your story, it sounds like there was a lot of confusion.

Sean Holstege: There was a lot of confusion, and it's common in these experiences. Typically after a fire, the reports will talk about lack of communication, or lack of coordination, or problems in the handoff of leadership. And all those things appeared evident from the 9-1-1 tapes. We would hear, and dispatchers coming in on their shifts saying, hang on, I need to check, I'm not sure what's going on. Dispatchers late from the day, an hour after the evacuation, and telling residents, oh, no, you are on four-hour alert, a standby. And they, themselves, weren't sure what, of what they were supposed to be telling the public.

Ted Simons: Do we know why?

Sean Holstege: No, we don't. Some of it is the chaotic nature of those experience, and you understand what a dispatch center is, all the people on the telephones dealing with calls but also with incoming information, it's very loud and chaotic. And usually what will happen is we'll assign somebody to coordinate the messages, make sure everybody is on the same page, we don't know whether that happened or not but the message is going out, and we're unclear, and the messages coming in were unclear. At one point someone said we could have a trigger point which is fire jargon for they have hit a decision point where they need to move out or evacuate. And at first the officials said this is the one-hour notice for Yarnell and corrected himself, and ultimately it was the four-hour notice. But, they, themselves weren't sure.

Ted Simons: And with that uncertainty, what, some residents were either confused, some residents never got the information?

Anne Ryman: They did not, and there was a, a reverse 9-1-1 system, and there was a lot of, a lot of confusion about the system, and misunderstanding on how it works. And if you have a land line, you are automatically, you would receive the calls, about if you had a cell phone, and you had to sign up, specifically, to get the message, and so, it really became a grapevine where people were passing the information to each other. And sometimes, it was accurate. Sometimes it was not.

Sean Holstege: And, and sometimes the people that, that signed up, and knew that they were in the system, didn't get a call anyway, and we're not sure why. And the sheriff's office couldn't quantify that.

Ted Simons: And an action plan. Regarding all of this, the action plan was written the next day?

Sean Holstege: On the Monday after the burn-over of the hot shots and the evacuation and the burning of Yarnell, and just to clarify for the viewers, in big fires, it is standards procedure to write a plan as you show up, and as the events unfold the incident commanders, they will modify and amend that, and hand it off to the next incident commander when there is a shift change or the fire escalates, and that's the routine practice, a standard Federal requirement, and this was a state fire. And so, they were not required to do that, but it's a standard procedure, but they did not do it in this case.

Ted Simons: So, who was in charge?

Sean Holstege: State forestry.

Ted Simons: And then go down the chain, Yarnell fire and Yavapai county or --

Sean Holstege: Let me go in reverse, it breaks out with a lightning strike on Friday late afternoon, Yarnell fire department is the first on-scene. They did not respond because they could not get men up to the scene. There was confusion on whether it was state or BLM. It was state forestry so they put on a commander who runs there through Saturday. Sunday morning another incident commander for state forestry takes over because the fire has escalated, and only after the burn-over, and I forget the time now because we did not focus on this, did the Federal firefighters take over after the fact.

Ted Simons: And with all of this going on, any injuries? Any deaths because of or the lack of an evacuation?

Anne Ryman: There were two people who had minor injuries. This is probably the, the most dramatic story, a 63-year-old man, and, and his 85-year-old cousin. They did not have a car at the time and they actually had to walk out while flames were coming at them, and embers are falling all over, and they can only see five or six feet in front of them. And fortunately, somebody came along in a truck with emergency lights, and picked them up. And they still don't know who their mystery rescuer is, but they were saved.

Sean Holstege: And this goes to, to the issue of procedures. One of the things that our fire experts told us is while you have that plan, it sets in motion a chain of events in a logical fashion. Many states have ready, state go, for one hour, four hours, and immediate evacuation. And 410, and there is supposed to be a chain of events where you decide ok, now it's time- now it's safe and now it's not. And that did not appear to happen, and as a result of that, the Sheriff's deputies were themselves rushed, they are not supposed to knock doors or blare bull horns, it's unsafe to them. None of this appeared to happen from anyone that we talked to.

Ted Simons: And yet it sounds as though the Yavapai county sheriff's office is saying, chaotic situation, fast moving fire, and everything worked as well as it could. Folks got their neighbors out, and folks did some work on their own, and what's the problem here?

Anne Ryman: They are using measure success that there were not any deaths, and to their credit, they did -- they were going through right after the evacuation order went out, and they were rushing through to try to reach as many residents as they could. Not everybody was able to get a knock on the door, though. Not everybody got a call. There is some that did not.

Ted Simons: And, again, back to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office and their response. It sounds like what they are saying, this is an awfully difficult situation, you mentioned the chaos, and how that has to factor in, and all things considered, did they not do as well as possible?

Sean Holstege: By the measure of getting everybody out, they did as well as they could have. The question is, could it have been more orderly and could some of that chaos have been avoided? If you talk to the fire experts, one of my fire experts said something that I did not put in the print, he said we have a lot of near misses. And we are lucky we did not have direct hits, meaning we are lucky that this chaos hasn't killed any civilians yet. And the reason why it can be more coordinated, is because they have -- everybody talks about second-guessing the fire but they had all the evidence that they needed on the Saturday to know how scary this fire could get, would get. But they did not seem to look at that evidence, is what the fire experts told us, so as a result, we have this chaotic evacuation that could have been less chaotic.

Ted Simons: Last question what are you hearing from residents up there, as far as how they thought the evacuation went, and now that they are reading your story and finding out a bit more?

Anne Ryman: I would say that, that the chaos and the flaw that is we wrote about is a common theme up there. A lot of people experienced that. We could only quote a fraction of the people that we talked to. There are many, many dramatic stories, and there are people that did decide to get out early, and they probably didn't have the same experience. There were an awful lot of folks getting out at the last minute.

Ted Simons: Is there dissatisfaction? Are they upset up there? Taking it as this is an act of nature and God? What are you hearing?

Anne Ryman: As far as the evacuation?

Ted Simons: Yes.

Anne Ryman: No, they do feel that they should have had more notice.

Ted Simons: All right, very good. Again, this is incredible work here, and great story and, and it's good to have both here to help us make better sense of it. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Anne Ryman:Reporter, Arizona Republic; Sean Holstege: Reporter, Arizona Republic

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