U.S. Forest Service
The Yarnell Hill fire. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

A good friend of mine who is a wildfire medic was at the airport, en route to his next assignment, when I called to ask him, in that helpless way we do, to be safe, and to see how he was handling the tragic news from Arizona, where 19 hotshots lost their lives on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

He didn’t know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally. But on-the-job loss of life hits everyone in the fire community hard. It’s a reminder of their own mortality, and of the calculated risks their own fire families take every day.

“On my last fire, the whole division had to run to the safety zone,” he told me. Safety zones are clearings firefighters can escape to if fire behavior changes and threatens the welfare of those on the fire line. Such escapes happen “more than people think,” he told me. “It’s an accepted part of the job. You’re just not supposed to die.”

His voice was angry, baffled, sad. Like all of us, he was turning over the things that might have gone wrong. “My instinct is that they were overcommitted to those houses,” he told me. “We have rules. You’re supposed to never put (the value of anything) above your life. Safety is the No. 1 thing. There’s no fucking house that’s worth it. That town was getting burned over, and those guys went in and did their job and got fucked.”

This is just speculation, of course, but it raises an important question. As Outside editor and a former hotshot himself, Kyle Dickman, put it: “In wildland firefighting, as with all firefighting, there’s nothing more important than protecting homes from destruction, but in the past decade, more than 20 million people have moved into the lands that will eventually be threatened by wildfire. Was Granite Mountain’s supervisor, the field general in charge of making calls on the ground, more willing to expose his crew to risk because houses were at stake?”

Thankfully, incidents of mass death by burning are rare, and seem to have become less common over time, despite the fact that fires have grown larger and more intense, and more manhours are annually spent fighting wildfire. A briefing paper posted this winter by the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center reported that since 1995, fire entrapment or burnovers—being overtaken by flames—caused 11 percent of wildland firefighter fatalities. Since 1926, entrapment or burnovers accounted for 38 percent of deaths. (There are flaws to this data, however, because of inconsistent fatality-reporting practices over time, so it’s hard to say if there’s a true statistical trend.) The chart here shows all such incidents since 1910 when five or more lives were lost to fire itself, as opposed to falling trees or rocks, plane or car crashes, or heart attacks or other medical issues. (Note the large number of fatalities here in California.)

“The one common denominator with burnovers is unpredictability,” says Larry Sutton, a U.S. Forest Service risk-management officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “The fire did something that you weren’t expecting. (Beyond that), we’ve kind of trained ourselves not to speculate. There’s always more to it than meets the eye. It takes a lot of investigation and a lot of analysis to figure out the whys behind (these incidents).”

A look back at the investigation of the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo.—the last incident of this magnitude, where 14 firefighters died—is instructive, however, as to the probing that should be done into the human factors that contributed to the Yarnell Hill disaster. Rarely can such tragedies be explained by fire behavior alone.

The South Canyon Fire blew up rapidly the afternoon of July 6, 1994, as an arid cold front with winds gusting up to 45 mph moved in, and dry oak ignited. Flames 200 to 300 feet high spread suddenly at up to 18 mph. It was, no doubt, a difficult situation to manage. But a joint Bureau of Land Management-U.S. Forest Service investigation found that inadequate escape routes and safety zones, fire line construction, and the failure to brief hotshots of fuel conditions or weather forecasts were also “direct causes” of the accident.

“The fire behavior on July 6 could have been predicted on the basis of fuels, weather and topography, but fire behavior information was not requested or provided,” the report concluded. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s investigation found that “plain indifference” to employee safety caused the deaths.

We should not assume that the same was true at Yarnell Hill before an investigation is complete. By most accounts, there is a much greater emphasis on safety in firefighting operations today. Sutton says leadership-development programs have been stepped up since then, to improve decision-making on the ground, as has “fatigue management”—that is, keeping close watch of shift and assignment lengths. But if there is any lesson in the past, it is that people always play a role.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.