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Revisiting lessons learned from fires

By Morgan Jacobsen
Proquest LLC

SALT LAKE CITY - Wildland firefighter Bret Bowthorpe remembers the unusual silence that filled a fire camp after learning of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed in Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire a year ago Monday.

"That night the fire camp was solemn, quiet and filled with respect," said Bowthorpe, an assistant squad leader for the U.S. Forest Service Spanish Fork Ranger District. "We all took the opportunity to call home to our loved ones. The next morning, after a moment of silence for the fallen, we still had a job to accomplish."

In addition to widespread grief and bewilderment, wildfires such as the Yarnell Hill Fire present hard-learned lessons that "cut deep" in the wildfire community, Bowthorpe said. Such lessons are being revisited in light of the one-year anniversary of the fire, as well as the 20th anniversary of Colorado's South Canyon Fire, which killed 14 firefighters.

When such a fire occurs, an investigative team comprised of federal, state and local agencies works to identify key factors leading to the incident. Investigators especially seek to understand what firefighters knew at the time, despite what is learned in hindsight.

Finally, a report is generated with the findings and recommendations for future training, according to Allen Briggs Jr., a fire management officer for the U.S. Forest Service Pleasant Grove Ranger District.

Even a year after the Yarnell Hill Fire, officials are still struggling to understand how almost an entire crew of elite firefighters went from relative safety to entrapment.

A report of the incident says the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew was moving through an unburned area when their route was cut off by a flame front moving up to 12 miles per hour, driven by shifting winds.

The crew had less than two minutes to prepare a fire shelter deployment site before flames in excess of 2,000 degrees swept through the area. While the cocoon-like foil shelters are designed to resist radiant heat, they don't withstand direct contact with flames.

"We cannot fully know how they made their decisions prior to their entrapment and fire shelter deployment," the report states. "No crew members from the deployment site survived to tell why the crew took the actions they took."

Communication needed

Jason Curry, a spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, said lessons from Yarnell Hill are frequently discussed among firefighters.

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"One of the messages coming out of there is that perceptions are not always going to be reality," Curry said.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots "didn't know all the factors. They didn't know all the fire behavior that was going on in areas they couldn't see. ... Knowing information and having a full reality are ultimately going to keep us safe. So communication is key."

Curry said tragic fires also remind firefighters to keep a heightened sense of awareness.

"We don't want to take it lightly, we don't want to get complacent with our own actions," he said. "That's not to say that those guys were complacent, but if those guys can get into trouble, then certainly all of our folks need to be evaluating their actions and ... making (safety) the foremost thing."

The Yarnell Hill report recommends a review of current technology, such as GPS units and weather applications, which could improve fire officials' ability to track and communicate with fire resources and receive real-time weather updates.

The South Canyon Fire, which ignited about seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, has undergone extensive scrutiny after it killed 14 firefighters on July 6, 1994.

Strong winds caused the fire to "spot," or jump to an area downhill from where firefighters were working. The fire spread rapidly uphill, and most of the firefighters were unable to outrun the flames, according to an investigation report.

Prior to the incident, some firefighters "expressed safety concerns about fire tactics and fire behavior," according to the report. Pertinent weather forecasts and suppression plans do not appear to have been known by all. A "can-do" attitude of some of the firefighters also seems to have contributed to compromised safety, the report states.

Now, 20 years later, firefighters are still learning from the South Canyon Fire, according to Briggs.

"More lessons have come from South Canyon than about Yarnell Hill, mainly due to the amount of time that has passed since the event took place," he said.

New policies

Since the South Canyon Fire, various policies have been implemented to foster leadership development, fatigue management and efficient use of resources, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

As communication continues to play a key role in safe fire operations, personnel at all levels are encouraged to "speak up" when circumstances seem unsafe, Briggs said.

"The empowerment and cooperation to make sound, well-informed decisions from the ground level to agency administrators is more prevalent," he said.

"The ability and encouragement to speak up and share concerns at any level, at any point in time ... is integral to risk sharing and risk management."

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Cooperation among fire agencies has produced easy-to-use guidelines that are issued to each firefighter, including two lists commonly known as the "10 and 18."

These include 10 standardized firefighting orders and 18 "watchout situations" that address elements of fire behavior, emergency procedures, communication and situations that commonly lead to unnecessary risk.

Many firefighters, during their morning briefings, participate in a program called "6 Minutes for Safety," according to Curry.

The program is offered through the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, an interagency group that gives daily prompts for discussion on various elements of firefighter safety, many of which stem from fatalities that have occurred.

While firefighters are responsible for their own safety, much of the danger they currently face is preventable with half of all wildfires in Utah being human-caused, Curry said.

"There's nothing we can do about the natural-caused fires, but the human-caused fires we can always have an impact on," he said. "If we don't have the ignitions, we won't have the wildfires and we won't be putting our firefighters in danger."

Officials hope firefighters and civilians will continue to learn from fatal fires like Yarnell Hill and South Canyon.

"We take it personally. We feel it. ... It's something we think about all throughout the season," Curry said. "And now that we're on the anniversary timeframe, we want to make sure that everything we're doing is safe, and if necessary, change things."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Copyright:(c) 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.
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