Residents Still Have Questions About Yarnell Fire (AZ)

Yarnell-area residents are trying to rebuild their homes and lives, but many are stuck wondering why a small brush fire on June 28 was allowed to grow large enough two days later to destroy a quarter of the small community and kill 19 firefighters, reports

Many had hoped the release of the official investigative report on Saturday would answer questions about the early attack on the fire. It did not. And now anger is building.

“We find it to be just garbage,” said Jim Kuempel, 66, a retiree who lives in Glen Ilah, one of the two communities devastated by the fire. “They spent all this time and probably a lot of money to do this investigation, and they leave out the beginning. What kind of investigation is that?”

The report and its authors said very little about the early assault on the Yarnell Hill Fire on Friday evening, June 28, and the next day. Investigators said the initial lightning strike sparked a small, remote fire. Yarnell’s fire was a lower priority than others in the area and investigators said it would have been dangerous to send ground crews in the dark, over rugged terrain.

But other veteran wildland firefighters say they were trained to aggressively put out small fires, particularly at night when they are easy to battle, so that they don’t become more threatening.

Some say the early response to the Yarnell Hill Fire fell short. On June 28, the Yarnell Fire Department decided not to go up the hill to fight the fire. The next day, the Arizona State Forestry Division was slow to mobilize resources, critics said.

“It was a timid, inadequate response on day one and day two,” said Bill Gabbert, who, after a 30-year career as a wildland firefighter and a hotshot crew member, launched “To not send firefighters at night and not attack it with force the next morning is offensive to firefighters who know what they’re doing.”

Accident reports after some, but not all, of the deadliest wildfires in recent U.S. history point to a poor early response as one contributing factor in accidental deaths.

On the late afternoon that lightning ignited a corner of Yarnell Hill, six similar fires flared up in Yavapai County. All of those were put out. The volunteer Williamson Valley Fire Department sent a squad to one such fire. The crew watched it until state and federal forestry crews showed up, and together they contained the fire.

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