PHOENIX — An Arizona commission approved a nearly $560,000 fine on Wednesday against the state Forestry Division in the deaths of 19 firefighters after an investigative agency found that officials put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled out crews earlier.
The vote by the state Industrial Commission came after the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health had proposed a trio of citations with financial penalties in its investigation of workplace violations.
The safety agency said forestry officials managing the Yarnell Hill Fire northwest of Phoenix failed to promptly remove downwind crews when suppression became ineffective, placing firefighters at risk for death, burns and smoke inhalation.
“In this particular fire there were lots of things going sideways, from all aspects,” said Marshall Krotenberg, the safety agency’s lead investigator.
All but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30 when they became trapped in a brush-choked bowl near Yarnell. The Arizona State Forestry Division oversaw the fight against the blaze that began on state land.
The commission’s chairman, David Parker, said he believed the fire management team on site did everything in its power to defend the community and provide for the safety of people.
“But it’s not the intention of the people that (is) in question, it’s that employees remained exposed after they no longer should be exposed,” he said.
Carrie Dennett, a spokeswoman for the Forestry Division, said the agency fully cooperated with the investigation and declined comment on the report and the commission’s action. The Forestry Division has 15 working days to contest the citations and penalties.
Gov. Jan Brewer’s office also declined comment, citing pending litigation. The mother of one of the Hotshots has filed a $36 million notice of claim against the state, Yavapai County and the city of Prescott, saying negligence led to the death of her son.
The safety agency’s review occurred simultaneously but separately from a three-month investigation by national experts into the circumstances surrounding the deaths that was released in September. That report found lapses in communication from the crew in the hour before the firefighters died. It also found proper procedure was followed but did not say whether the tragedy was avoidable nor did it place blame on anyone.
ADOSH’s investigation found that the state Forestry Division lacked key personnel at critical times, including officers to ensure firefighters’ safety, a planning section chief and a division supervisor who wasn’t replaced after he abandoned his post.
Krotenberg said fire managers should have removed firefighters from the south side of the blaze an hour before a thunderstorm arrived that ultimately shifted wind direction and trapped the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
“The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it,” he said. “But there was no plan to move people out of the way.”
Firefighting crews were still battling the fire even after the incident command post was evacuated, according to the ADOSH report.
The bulk of the proposed fine is $25,000 for each of the 19 deaths that will be paid to the families of the men employed by the city of Prescott but who were working under contract with the state Forestry Division for the Yarnell Hill Fire. The ADOSH investigation found that the city of Prescott was in compliance with standards for training and crew rest.
The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots had been in a relatively safe position on a ridge top on June 30. For some unknown reason and without notifying anyone, they moved down the mountainside through an unburned area. The men found themselves trapped by a wall of flames when winds shifted the fire in their direction.
They deployed their emergency shelters but perished in the scorching heat.
The surviving crew member, Brendan McDonough, might have suffered the same fate had he not been picked up by another crew leader who happened to be driving by after McDonough radioed in to say his trigger point had been reached and he was retreating as the crew’s lookout, Krotenberg said.
“Essentially, it was in the nick of time and he didn’t have to deploy his shelter,” Krotenberg said.
The report praised the Granite Mountain Hotshots for remaining “alert, unimaginably calm, thinking clearly and taking decisive action.”
While the crew followed most standard firefighting guidelines, the safety agency faulted the men for not scouting or timing alternative escape routes, not having a lookout as they moved toward a ranch property identified as a safety zone, and not notifying their supervisor of their movements.
The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and burned 13 square miles before it was fully contained on July 10.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report