Experts: Findings of Fatal Yarnell Fire May Prevent Future Deaths

In a wildfire world where mistakes can mean deaths, as it did in the backcountry fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters, experts say the questions demand answers, reports

Investigators so far have issued a 72-hour report that addressed dynamics rather than causality: As a thunderstorm moved in, fire reversed direction and exploded into an inferno. That is the modus operandi of most killer fires. The Yarnell Hill fire was unique in the number of victims.

The review process is sobering and meticulous: Team members must interview witnesses and study dispatch logs, aerial photographs, weather reports, fuels, topography, training, leadership, autopsies and every imaginable factor in the June 30 deaths.

Detailed findings are expected in mid-September, but prospects of blame already have churned controversy.

In fact, wildfire-fatality reviews nearly always identify mistakes and safety violations by the victims, compounding the pain.

Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service investigator from Montana who has participated in about two dozen accident inquiries across the nation, said investigators owe it to the hotshots to determine why they died.

“The biggest obligation to the dead is to tell the truth,” Mangan said. “It steps on people’s toes sometimes, it offends some people’s sensitivity sometimes, it changes the image that they have of the firefighters.”

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