Around Arizona: Yarnell Hill Fire Report

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The Arizona Division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is releasing its report on the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters. Jim Cross, who covers wildfires for KTAR radio, will discuss the report.

Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," a new report finds major workplace safety violations in the fighting of the Yarnell hill fire. ASU announces the design plans for its new downtown law school. And we'll hear about record-breaking Federal funding for rural housing in Arizona. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The Arizona division of the occupational health and safety administration released its report today on the Yarnell hill fire, which killed 19 firefighters. Here to talk about it is Jim cross from KTAR radio. He has covered every major wildfire for many, many years, and now, you are covering a report on this particular tragic fire. What did the state investigation look at, and what did the state investigation find?

Jim Cross: The report back in late September, that did not assign blame, this is a totally different report, this one did assign blame, and they leveled the blame on the state division of forestry, and they found in their words, almost everything went sideways before the firefighters were killed. And they said the ball was dropped, and they questioned not pulling the firefighters out of that canyon when the situation was futile, or out of that area when the situation was futile, they questioned not reacting to that thunderstorm that shifted the fire around and, and turned it towards them fast enough, and they said that the key personnel were not in key places at key times ahead of that fire, and it was a very damning report. 559,000 fine, and amounts to 29,000 per firefighter lost.

Ted Simons: And this is the occupational safety and health division of Arizona, submitting a report to, to the industrial commission. So, a lot of state agencies involved, but as far as the investigation is concerned, who was involved? Did they have an outside bunch of folks look at this from the outside?

Ted Simons: They are a team, and they had some wildfire experts, one of them was a smoke jumper, that looked at this, and again, they found the state, at least in part, responsible. It took the industrial commissioners seconds to unanimously approve this on a 4-0 vote and, and the fine was forwarded. The state has not issued a reaction, the state forestry, and they wanted to review the report before they got into that.

Jim Cross: It sounds like a 70,000 in willful violation, 14,000 in other violations, and the state could be looking at 25,000 some odd per firefighter death. With that money going to, to survivors estates and Etc., correct?

Jim Cross: Correct. And we did get a chance to speak with one of the firefighters' wives, Andrea Ashcraft, and his wife Jill Ann was there today. She has not made up her mind, or declined to say whether she would file a lawsuit in connection with his death. She said nothing as far as money figures will bring her husband back. She did tell me that she hopes that this fine is enough of a sting for the state forestry division to make the changes needed to prevent this from happening again. She also told me that she thought that the state has not taken ownership of this since the beginning. She's very angry still. It has been months. She was there today, with some other family members there, too.

Ted Simons: Let's look at the particulars here, conditions exceeded expectations of fire managers. That sounds as though they exceeded expectations, yet the first report suggests that this was an act of God, that no one could have expected this thunderstorm to pop up and turn winds around.

Jim Cross: The investigator from OSHA pointed out today that they knew, they had been contacted by the southwest coordination center about two weeks before the fire, and in effect, were told to be ready for anything and everything. This could be an explosive fire --

Ted Simons: Interesting, interesting.

Jim Cross: And you remember this fire started after, what, the three-day run of 120-degree weather here in the valley, humidity up there was probably 2%, at best. And this is an area that hadn't burned in years. So these conditions were as explosive as you can possibly imagine.

Ted Simons: And another point here, managers failed to recognize their tactics could not succeed. That is one of those managerial things where you saw x and y working, and yet you were not going on to z, you were sticking with x and y.

Jim Cross: The thing that we are concerned about, there was a safety officer who arrived on the fire eight hours later for whatever reason. And the Saturday before, before the fire, killed the firefighters on Sunday and, and the focus of the report today was, was the key personnel weren't there when they needed to be. And, or they arrived late and, and this probably is part of the other major factor here, guidelines from the forest division were not followed in their own activity up there.

In OSHA's opinion.

Ted Simons: And also, a strategy failed after, after the fire jumped the line, played for a life threatening event, it sounds like they were not happy with the way they attacked the fire in the first place.

Jim Cross: From the OSHA report today, it did not appear that they were happy with anything. They hit them with three citations, and one of them willfully serious and, and that's a big fine.

Ted Simons: So, we have got that initial report, ok. Now, we have got this one, as you mentioned, much more damning, so a lot more in the way of blame. What do we take from all of this and what are we learning from this?

Jim Cross: Hopefully, that this never happens again. That, that, for whatever reason, this happened, an act of nature, call it what you want, and OSHA feels differently, and the thunderstorm played a huge role in this. It turned the fire around on a dime, and it raced back to those firefighters, and they were pinned in that cannon, and there was nothing that they could have done. The wind was blowing 75 or 80 miles per hour, and that was a fire bowl in there, and it's impossible to climb out of there with any speed. Hopefully, what we'll glean from the reports, once, you know, they are put together, is that this will never happen again.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned the forestry division, no one talking there.

Jim Cross: No. I am sure that they will eventually.

Ted Simons: But again, what do we take from it and what do the firefighters, you know the firefighters, you worked with them and you've been around them for years. And what are they taking from this?

Jim Cross: I think that the firefighters feel like possibly the state forestry is being unfairly blamed. And, and there is other firefighters I have spoken with that feel like this could change the way that fires are fought forever. It could alter that, for better or worse. And, and --

Ted Simons: In what ways do you think?

Jim Cross: In the way that they attack them, possibly. And there is, you know, we're still a long ways from that happening. There is some firefighters that believe that, that you, that since they said in this report that they thought the state put property over life, that it may, and again, this is nothing carved in stone, that it may shift to ok, we're going to take care of lives, and not worry about, about these homes, even though the firefighters, that's the opposite of how firefighters think. They go in, and when others are running away, and so, that remains to be seen, but what comes out of this -- it will be interesting to see once, once, you know, in a few months from now how the reports are put together, and what does shake out of it.

Ted Simons: All right, Jim, good stuff and great reporting. Thanks for joining us.

Jim Cross: Thanks. Always a pleasure.

Jim Cross:KTAR Radio;

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