[As 2013 comes to a close, the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks back on its major projects over the last year.]
The deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters in June drew attention to wildland firefighting in ways only tragedy can. Investigations and lawsuits immediately began examining how the elite and highly experienced crew were cut off by a hurricane-force blaze ripping down a remote Arizona mountainside and burned to death.
An ABC News investigation in August revealed that the hotshots perished after their escape route was cut off and while awaiting for a chance at relief from a few U.S. Forest Service air tankers – aging planes refitted to drop fire retardant chemicals – which never arrived.
The catastrophic loss of life – the worst for firefighters nationwide since the 9/11 attacks – prompted fresh scrutiny of the Forest Service’s large air tanker fleet, which shrank 75 percent over the past decade without any viable plan to replace the flying museum pieces, which have crashed, been grounded or otherwise taken out of service. At times, less than 10 Forest Service-contracted air tankers are available to fight the growing number of massive wildfires in the western United States each year, a problem that some officials say puts wildland firefighters at risk.
In the case of the Yarnell fire, a Korean war-era P2V air tanker lost power in its piston engine and was forced to turn back to base, state forestry officials told ABC News, while a DC-10 orbiting the blaze never dropped its load, state and federal investigators later revealed. It took almost two hours on the afternoon of June 30 for state fire officials to pinpoint the Prescott-based hotshot crew’s site above the town of Yarnell, where the firefighters had futilely deployed personal fire shelters. Despite their efforts, the shelters couldn't withstand the estimated 2,000-degree inferno that swept over them.
Had one of the planes arrived and dropped its load of retardant on the fireline, “it may have bought them ten minutes to get to a little safer place than where they were," Prescott, Arizona, Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis told ABC News in an interview.
Only one Granite Mountain Hotshot, Brendan McDonough, survived. He was the lookout and had been ordered to leave his position by supervisors. Down in Yarnell he realized all 19 of his close friends on the crew had perished on the mountainside, and so McDonough, known as “Donut,” climbed into one their trucks and absorbed the enormity of the situation.
"Whoever didn't bring their phone, I could hear phones ringing, knowing that it was their wives, their family," McDonough recounted in the exclusive first interview about the tragedy with ABC News, which aired on "Good Morning America," “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “Nightline.”
WATCH the original ABC News report.
Impact: The Forest Service’s inability for more than a decade to replace its dwindling fleet of aging air tankers received new scrutiny by the public and from lawmakers, who have been under pressure to approve funds for a questionable plan to buy a squadron of brand-new C-130 military planes -- at a cost of more than $100 million each.