Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Communication poor as firefighters died

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PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- A three-month investigation into the June deaths of 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona blaze cites poor communication between the men and support staff, and reveals an air tanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the firefighters died.

The 120-page report released Saturday found proper procedure was followed and assigned little blame for the worst firefighting tragedy since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

All but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew died June 30 while protecting the small former gold rush town of Yarnell, Ariz., about 130 kilometres northwest of Phoenix, from an erratic, lightning-sparked wildfire.

While maintaining a neutral tone, the investigation found badly programmed radios, vague updates and a 33-minute communication blackout just before the flames engulfed the men. Investigators did not consider whether better communication might have saved the men. Hotshots are highly trained backcountry firefighters who hike deep into the brush to fight blazes.

Though the report points to multiple failures, investigators did not consider whether the deaths could have been avoided, raising questions about what lessons firefighters can take from the tragedy.

"These guys were doing what they were trained to do, and doing it well. But Mother Nature wins," Jeff Berino, an incident commander in Colorado who has also worked as a fire investigator, said during a media briefing in Prescott, where all the fallen firefighters lived.

Some family members were angered the report didn't draw stronger conclusions about why the men died and recommend changes. David Turbyfill interrupted the news conference to shame officials for not providing his 27-year-old son Travis with the protection he needed to survive as the flames swept over him. He said the shelter Travis died in had not been improved in 13 years.

"This report is fairly conclusive that the fire shelters are a total disaster. Policies, as they may be, need to change," he said.

His wife, Shari, begged the panel to move more quickly to correct the problems that contributed to her stepson's death.

"Your protection of us is killing us," she said. "We're willing to take the heat right now, but I don't want another family to deal with this. Help us, I implore you. Help us. Give us the information we need to change this. It is so necessary, please."

The report, produced by a team of local, state and federal fire experts, provides the first minute-to-minute account of the fatal afternoon. The day went according to routine in the boulder-strewn mountains until the wind shifted around 4 p.m., pushing a wall of fire that had been receding from the firefighters all day back towards them.

After that, the command centre lost track of the 19 men. Without telling command, and despite the weather warning, the firefighters left the safety of a burned ridge and dropped into a densely vegetated basin surrounded by mountains on three sides. Investigators noted the men failed to perceive the "excessive risk" of this move and said there was no way to know why the firefighters made the deadly decision.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2013 A6

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