A team of expert firefighters were overrun by a massive wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., while trying to make it to a safe zone after an unpredictable desert thunderstorm turned the Yarnell Hill Fire into their path earlier this year, while confusing radio communications prevented a fire-fighting aircraft from dropping retardant on the blaze, according to a report issued Saturday.
The 119-page report, issued by the Arizona State Forestry Division on Saturday, cited failures in communication that prevented the team from keeping in touch with other crews battling the fire. Some radios were programmed to incorrect frequencies, the report concluded, meaning the team was out of contact for almost half an hour before the fire suddenly changed direction. But the report found no indication of recklessness or negligence on the part of the firefighters themselves.
It said the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were moving from a mountain ridge toward a safety zone at Boulder Springs Ranch when winds from a passing thunderstorm caused the fire to overtake the team on June 30. The firefighters had less than two minutes to deploy emergency shelters; temperatures exceeded 2,000 degrees when the men were overtaken about 600 yards from the safety zone.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots, one of about 110 elite firefighting units in the United States, was attached to the Prescott Municipal Fire Department. Nineteen of their twenty members, ranging in age from 21 to 43, died in the blaze. Only one team member, who had been deployed elsewhere as a lookout, survived.
The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest single incident for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed 340 New York City firefighters, and the worst loss of life for firefighters in the western United States since 19 firefighters were killed in a refinery fire in Sunray, Tex., in 1956.