MISSOULA — Experts in the use and development of fire shelters and protective gear left Missoula this week for Arizona to assist in the investigation of the fatal Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott.
Veteran smokejumpers and fire investigators in Missoula also are waiting for the investigation to reveal answers, and they’re urging officials to keep politics out of the process.
Alex Gavrisheff, the deputy director of technology and development at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center, confirmed Wednesday that two employees from the center are assisting in the Arizona investigation.
“We have two individuals there participating in the investigation in their particular area of focus — fire shelters and personal protective equipment,” Gavrisheff said. “Did we have equipment failures or not? Were shelters deployed or not?”
The employees will analyze the Nomex shirts and fire pants worn by 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died on the Yarnell Hill fire. The team also will study the crew’s fire shelters and analyze how the equipment was deployed.
“There’s a lot speculation at this point,” said Gavrisheff. “The definitive answers will come out in the report.”
The Rocky Mountain Research Center, another Forest Service program based in Missoula, also has been busy fielding calls from the national media.
The center, which conducts scientific research on fire, fuels and smoke, likely won’t take part in the investigation, since the Yarnell Hill fire was a state incident, not a Forest Service incident.
“We’ve gotten a lot of media calls, some on fire behavior and some on fire weather,” said deputy program manager Kristine Lee. “Some things we can address. We can talk in generalities, but we don’t have the details. People don’t know everything that occurred yet to make that next jump.”
Veteran smokejumpers and fire investigators also urged caution when drawing conclusions on how the experienced Hotshot crew was trapped and overrun by the Yarnell Hill blaze.
Dick Mangan, a wildfire expert who retired from the Missoula Technology and Development Center in 2000, investigated more than 20 fire entrapment and fatality incidents with the Forest Service over the course of his career.
Mangan was the first investigator to arrive at Storm King Mountain in Colorado after the South Canyon fire blew up in 1994 and trapped 14 firefighters. Mistakes were made in that incident, Mangan said, but he isn’t looking to assign blame.
Instead, he’s waiting for the Arizona investigation to yield its own answers.
“You try to talk to as many people as you can, privately and one on one,” Mangan said. “You try to find out the majority of views of what people thought or saw happen. Everyone looks at it through a different prism. You verify three or four times, and that becomes difficult.”
Mangan noted the perceived similarities between the two incidents. Fire shelters were deployed at both the South Canyon and Yarnell Hill fires. Both fires killed experienced Hotshot crews, and both fires burned in difficult terrain and heavy fuels.
“You start off looking at the basics of training and qualifications, and then you step back into the fire situation itself,” Mangan said. “What kind of directions were they given? What kind of strategy and tactics were at play?”
Mangan said investigators will look at the weather forecast the day the Yarnell Hill fire blew up, and they’ll work to detail the crew’s actions as things went wrong. What did the lookout do when the fire shifted? What sort of communications were in place? Did the crew identify an acceptable escape route?
Mangan said the results could have implications for all national fire crews.
“You have to take a giant step back,” Mangan said. “We’re still right in the start of this fire investigation. If we learn something, we don’t want to wait until next spring to address it, so timing is key.”
Mangan feared that politics could muddy the Arizona fire investigation.
His concerns were echoed by Wayne Williams, who retired as a smokejumper after 33 years.
Williams also was at the South Canyon fire in 1994. He led the first organized search for bodies in that incident, and insisted that the fallen firefighters remain in place to allow for a proper investigation.
Nineteen years later, the Yarnell Hill fire has brought back old memories of that day in Colorado.
“To put it bluntly, this has conjured up a lot of feelings from South Canyon I thought were long buried,” Williams said. “A lot of emotion comes out of these things. I certainly feel for the families.”
Given his own experience, Williams wouldn’t speculate on the Arizona fire, saying it was too soon to comment and details remain uncertain. Fire investigators must be allowed to do their work without any political interference, he said.
“I want to find out what happened and get to the lessons we can learn,” Williams said. “But we need to leave it to the experts to figure out what happened. The politicians need to allow the investigators to get to the truth and get that out so we can all learn from it.”