Sept. 30, 2013
WASHINGTON -- The tragedy of the Granite Mountain Hotshots has renewed attention to the dwindling federal resources to fight a growing number of forest fires, even though an independent investigation found no one to blame in the deaths of 19 Arizona wildland firefighters last June.
It will never be known if greater availability of large airtankers contracted by the U.S. Forest Service would have saved their lives, but the tragedy put on public display a system where incident commanders overseeing even large fires have to beg for planes to drop retardant.
When the commanders in Yarnell, Ariz. asked for six large airtankers to drop retardant onto the fire from the afternoon into evening -- the period when it then intensified and swept over the hotshots -- the federal response was, "Unable to fill at this time."
After months of speculation about how the hotshot crew got killed in the Yarnell mountain blaze on June 30, a multi-agency investigation reported on Saturday that the elite team simply ran out of luck in the face of extraordinary forces of nature.
Nobody screwed up, the independent investigation concluded.
"The team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol" by the wildland firefighters or their on-scene supervisors, the report said.
The firefighters' deaths in 2,000-degree heat was a horrifying tragedy with nothing to blame but the weather and no one to hold liable -- known as an "act of God" in the law.
An ABC News investigation this month found that even as wildfires have been getting worse over the past decade of drought in the western U.S., the U.S. Forest Service fleet of large airtankers that drop retardant has shrunk 75 percent without any approved plan for replacing aged aircraft that have crashed, been grounded or plagued with mechanical problems.
The Arizona investigators found that most of the Forest Service's Korean War-vintage fleet of nine "large airtankers" were summoned by state officials that afternoon to drop retardant around the tiny town of Yarnell, but were denied by the federally-operated National Interagency Coordination Center.
Demand from other fires throughout the West was too high for all but one of the half-dozen Forest Service planes state officials requested to continue dropping retardant beyond the morning on the growing Yarnell fire 30 miles south of Prescott.
And, as first reported by ABC News, the investigation team found that the lone plane flying toward Yarnell as the hotshots called for help – Tanker 43, a P2V retired sub hunter owned by Neptune Aviation – suddenly "suffered a left reciprocal piston engine mechanical failure that forced them to jettison their retardant load and return to the base of departure."
Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Jim Paxon and Prescott Fire Wildland Division Chief Darryl Willis, who oversaw the Granite Mountain Hotshots, told ABC News in July that they believed the 1950s era airtanker might have helped save the crew had it arrived in Yarnell.
The fire was unusual in that it suddenly changed direction around 4:30 pm, with 50 mph winds shooting 70-foot flames horizontally across Yarnell Hill driven and racing across the ground faster than a man could outrun it.
The wind shift and intensity was so sudden that the elite Hotshots, who were making their way toward a nearby ranch, reported after a half hour of radio silence that "our escape route has been cut off." They were overwhelmed by flames in chaparral brush within two minutes of making that frantic radio call at 4:42 pm, the investigators said.
Only the crew's lookout, Brendan "Donut" McDonough, 21, survived because he was away from the group and was sent to safer ground when he reached his "trigger point" as the fire intensified.
In the hour before the Hotshots made the emergency call after descending from a "black" burned out safe zone into a box canyon, the severe weather had grounded some airtankers and closed the Prescott airport. Another nearby airport ran out of retardant.
The Arizona serious accident report disclosed a new fact that few state or federal officials knew at the time or in the months since -- one DC-10 "very large airtanker," or "VLAT," was in the vicinity of Yarnell when top hotshot Eric Marsh radioed that their situation was desperate.
"I did not realize they had a VLAT on scene," Chief Willis told ABC News on Monday.
The forestry division spokesman in Arizona, Jim Paxon, also said he was surprised to learn about the DC-10 VLAT on Saturday when the report was released.
Neither U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, his aviation director Tom Harbour or any other agency officials interviewed or contacted by ABC News since the June 30 deaths disclosed that there was a DC-10 over Yarnell when the search began for the missing hotshot crew.
Willis was in Yarnell when his men perished on the mountain, but was not in contact with the crew and didn't see the DC-10, which was at times seven miles away amid a sky filled with smoke. "I think everyone wishes someone knew exactly where [the Granite Mountain Hotshots] were so possibly some retardant could have been used in a strategic location," he said Monday.
At 4:42 pm, chainsaws clearing brush could be heard on the radio when Marsh said they had no escape and were deploying personal fire shelters.
"We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush and I'll give you a call when we are under the sh— the shelters," Marsh yelled.
A spotter plane responded, "K, we're gonna bring you the VLAT okay."
Marsh never responded.
The spotter plane made seven passes over the fire looking for the Hotshots in their yellow firefighting jackets as the DC-10 VLAT orbited the fire ready to drop more than 11,000 gallons of retardant – which is meant to block a fire's advance, not douse it.
But thick smoke and flames blanketed the mountainside, the report said. It took almost two hours until a paramedic on the ground finally located their deployment site -- and reported 19 fatalities.
10 Tanker owner Rick Hatton said in an interview that it's still unclear how the severe weather that afternoon affected his two converted passenger jets' operations, but he confirmed one of the DC-10s was flying near Yarnell ready to drop retardant when the crisis occurred.
"My captain was right overhead when those guys got killed," Hatton told ABC News on Saturday.
Investigators said they could not determine why the hotshots moved from "the black," the safe burned area where they last had checked in over radios, and down into the box canyon where their escape route to the nearby ranch was suddenly cut off.
"I believe there were circumstances that occurred and decisions that were made that we do not have facts on that contributed to their deaths," Chief Willis told ABC News. "We will never know what they were thinking or their decision process."