The one-year anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire is approaching. The fire killed 19 firefighters, the worst in Arizona history. Jim Cross of KTAR Radio and Mike Watkiss of KTVK-TV, both of whom covered the fire extensively, will talk about the fire and what happened in the aftermath.
Ted Simons: Well, it's been nearly a year since the Yarnell Hill wildfire Killed 19 firefighters, easily the worst firefighting tragedy in Arizona history. Joining us now to look back at the Yarnell Hill tragedy and its impact on the state is KTAR radio's Jim Cross, who covered the fire extensively, as did Mike Watkiss of KTVK-TV. Good to see you both here. Thank you both for coming. We should mention that you're here and you're probably going to wind up heading from here up to pine top because we've got a fire breaking out up there don't we?
Jim Cross: That is an unlimited potential fire. It's growing by leaps and bounds. A lot of fuel in front of it.
Ted Simons: Let's get back to Yarnell. Jim, when did you first hear of the fire and was there any indication that anything like what we wound up having was ready to occur?
Jim Cross: No. I had just come back in from Idaho the day before, the texts started flying, tweets and so on about Yarnell, this fire has gone from this much acreage to rapidly growing, and then the tweets and the texts started coming information, they had lost 19 firefighters, and the smoke and everybody hoped that they had just lost them in the smoke, and then it turned out they weren't in the smoke.
Ted Simons: Mike was it initially out of the ordinary in any way?
Mike Watkiss: I've been doing this for about 40 years Ted, and there are a handful of stories where I feel like I got the wind knocked out of me. In 9/11, getting to the scene on 9/11 and Oklahoma City and getting the news that these 19 firefighters had lost their lives, I felt like a body blow. And I think the state still feels that way and it impacted our coverage. I think we were shocked and numbed covering that story. All of us in sort of a state of shock, even covering the firefighters responding. It was an historic event that I think, you know, rocked Arizona and a year after the fact, there's still so many raw emotions.
Ted Simons: I want to get back to that. There's a good point. People still seem to be a little bit in shock. We'll get to that in a second but back to the scene, describe the scene. What was going on up there?
Jim Cross: Well, the firefighters had gone into a canyon and the fire, there was a thunderstorm near the fire several miles away from the fire and it essentially turned the fire around on them. They went back as far into the horseshoe canyon as you can possibly get, they tried to use the chain saws and cut down everything around them to create an area, a safe zone, didn't work, didn't have enough time, too much stuff in that canyon. I remember coming down out of Prescott at nighttime, I went up there after dark and I came down and it was so bright over Yarnell, I thought it was the lights over Phoenix.
Mike Watkiss: And really, the sad truth of it is these young men were in a safe area. And they decided to descend basically into this horseshoe canyon. They're up top in a black area, safe area, burned area. And they descended down because they're go-getters and they're guys who want to respond and hats off to those gentlemen still a year after I think people's hearts are broken over that but they went down and as Jim said, that fire turned around in front of them and they were completely trapped.
Ted Simons: When you were up there covering the story, when the information was first starting to filter out, confusion, was there chaos at the scene? What was going on up there?
Mike Watkiss: I think that there was utter confusion, and I think that those who have been born out in the aftermath of the reports, communication was poor and, you know, the mission for -- a lot of finger pointing and certainly the state forestry, the result of that industrial commission study. There were a lot of problems there.
Ted Simons: They not only said a lot of problems in management, a lot of problems in terms of communication, in terms of aviation, the whole nine yards and again, and again we talk about the shock factor. I think a year later people are still in shock and it surprises some that we haven't seen some monumental white paper or changed plans. Has anything changed in terms of fighting wildfires?
Jim Cross: If it has and it probably has, we have not been privy to it. We have not been made aware of it. I think the one piece of information I had over the past few months the change that they were talking about was they were going to test out GPS systems on the firefighters' packs along with the forest service, not sure how many firefighters are carrying those in Arizona. I assume some are. That's the one change we're aware of. Very few changes were made public.
Mike Watkiss: There was a lot of angst and strife at the legislature. We sort of live in a culture of the news cycle and unfortunately with these big dramatic events, there's all kinds of willpower to do something in the immediate aftermath but as the weeks and the months carry on, that willpower on the part of the legislature or people who can really make a difference seems to get sort of diluted. And here we are a year after that, we've got what is as Jim mentioned, a potentially catastrophic fire erupting in eastern Arizona, even as we speak and the history of forest management and how we respond and so many issues. But the bottom line is we're now in the season and the years of big fires and I think they're going to continue.
Jim Cross: For a long time. This is not going to end anytime soon if ever.
Ted Simons: If it's not going to end any time soon and people, they still want answers. We did a number of shows here trying to get answers and it seemed like you got a couple here with communication in these sorts of things, how do people have confidence that something like this isn't going to happen again?
Mike Watkiss: Well, if you have any sort of confidence that it's not going to happen again, you are truly living in a fool's paradise because it is going to happen again. The interface with the communities and the forests and just the status of our forests are so unhealthy at this point.
Ted Simons: Real quickly talk about that, the reaction you had from residents up there regarding this whole situation, from the time you get there to the time you left.
Mike Watkiss: Well, you know, you had people -- you find people evacuated from their homes literally running with the clothes on your back and those are moments of great trauma for these people. Jimmy and I have interviewed many folks like that and you see them again, sort of the arc of the story, I was up there last week with a couple of home-owners, a woman who's now buying a new home in Yarnell, who lost her home, and another couple that lost their home and they're rebuilding. So life goes on and they're stout, strong people up there and the community's trying to move on, the families that lost those young men, the loved ones, I don't know how you go on from that but the headlines we're seeing are about lawsuits and, you know, but I think privately those people are in anguish.
Ted Simons: And again, as far as the residents are concerned, are people starting to understand, clear the stuff away from your house, maybe you don't build so deeply into the forest? The development aspect of this, has that changed at all?
Jim Cross: I hope so. I hope it was a wake-up call because a lot of these homes that went didn't have any defensible space. They had brush pretty much up to their front door. And that's the one thing we've done story after story, year after year, get that defensible space around your house because it can make the difference between losing that home or losing lives just, you know, a weekend of work clearing the stuff away. You know, everybody needs to do that. Mike made a good point. Everything is so, you know, with the state's growth, people wanted to live out in the timber, in the desert and you're putting homes in many cases hundreds of homes in places where there have never been homes, areas that used to burn historically, now the drought is a huge issue right now, we haven't had rain since March. We've had one inch of rain since mid-December in the valley. Very little around the state. Flag staff's snow pack was one third of what it should be this year. It's bone dry. It's bad.
Ted Simons: We have had fires since the Yarnell Hill fire. When you've covered these fires, you talked to the firefighters and even talked to the residents, do you sense a little difference? Is it the same as it's always been or is everyone even more on edge?
Mike Watkiss: I don't think that this is going to ever leave the minds of people who were in Arizona a year ago and will be here for some time. The firefighters are aware of this. I think everybody knows that it brought all of us, what a fire can do, it can kill people, it can destroy homes, it can ravage our forests and it was crystallized one year ago. And so I think everybody knows that but when you get on a fire, those guys are all about business and I don't think they're changing. Those guys do what they do, those men and women who want to go out and fight. We've got four hot shot crews attacking this fire right now. There will be more by the time this show airs and the bottom line is they're all about business and they've always been about business. I love the firefighters. I'm not sure the managers always do a great job. The boots on the ground, they're always good.
Ted Simons: And you know you mentioned earlier, these are go-getters, the firefighters, it's what they do, this is their life. But even so, are they going and getting at the same rate or is this just basically in their DNA?
Mike Watkiss: What do you think?
Jim Cross: I think this is the way these men and women are wired. They're firefighters.
Mike Watkiss: And thank goodness we've got folks like that because we always -- they're the people who run in when the rest of us are running out and I've covered again the persona and thank goodness we've got folks like that.
Jim Cross: Oak creek canyon was a nasty, nasty fire. Steep cliffs, you can't dig in it, you have to air tanker, when you could because it was too steep and narrow to even get a tanker in through it. These 15 hot shot crews are in that canyon. They saved every home from burning, in Oak Creek Canyon and forest highlands and Kachina Village. They were close to being lost.
Mike Watkiss: They've had some success, very minimal but some success in actually going into some forest areas and clearing them out.
Ted Simons: And that helps that they're healthier.
Mike Watkiss: And they certainly told us that because oak creek canyon is such a gem, it has had some treatment in that forest and that's helped suppress that fire.
Ted Simons: What was learned? What have you learned from the Yarnell Hill tragedy?
Jim Cross: I think there's a lot of lessons. I think it may have changed, you know, whether we're getting the information on how it changed or not, I think it changed the nature of how they fight fires. I still think they're going to fight them aggressively. I think oak creek canyon was proof of that but there is not a firefighter in this country right now that will never have Yarnell in the back of their mind for the rest of the time while they go into these situations to fight wildfires. Communications, whether or not that changed, you know, remains to be seen.
Ted Simons: Mike in the end what was learned from all of this?
Mike Watkiss: Oh I wish I could say there were so many lessons learned. I think there are plenty of things that we should have learned but a year down the road I don't know, honestly. That's the sort of distressing thing about this. I'm not certain what we've learned, and now with another fire raging, I guess we'll see.
Ted Simons: Yeah. And we have a memorial service now coming up Monday. A couple of memorial services.
Jim Cross: Separate ones, one for the families, private service in Prescott. Also, there will be a city memorial, number of other events going on Saturday or Sunday and Monday in Prescott to mark the one year anniversary.
Ted Simons: And I guess the fact that that there will be two memorial services kind of says a lot about the aftermath of all this doesn't it?
Mike Watkiss: This has been an ugly story and, you know, we were up there with people, rebuilding homes and their message to me was, you know, for people who are passing judgment about what's going on in our community, unless you've walked in our shoes, you don't know what we've gone through in the last year and that was an interesting point and number of them made that to me.
Ted Simons: Interesting as well. You guys, great job. Great work both of you. And we wanted to get you in to get your recollections and let's hope we never have to do it again. Thank you both.
Mike Watkiss: Fingers crossed, yeah.
Jim Cross:Journalist, KTAR Radio; Mike Watkiss:Journalist, KTVK-TV;