A year after one of the nation's deadliest wildfires tore through Arizona's high desert hills, killing almost all of an elite firefighter unit outside the town of Yarnell, officials are still struggling to figure out what to do to prevent a repeat of the disaster as the legal fallout continues.
The families of a dozen of the firefighters killed filed a wrongful-death lawsuit this week claiming the state was negligent in its efforts to battle the massive blaze. Also this week, 162 affected property owners filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for their losses.
Despite at least two government-funded inquiries as well as media investigations, the state Legislature has taken a minimalist approach in dealing with the threat of wildfire. For example, lawmakers appropriated about $1.4 million to remove hazardous vegetation from 9.2 million acres of state trust land —far less than the $100 million needed to take care of the forest land, according to state Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
"This is an extremely serious problem," Kavanagh said, adding that state officials are going to have to get creative to find the needed funds and resources to prevent disastrous wildland fires such as the Yarnell Hill blaze. "It's only going to get worse."
Land clearance of deadly fuels, especially mature chaparral, is a key step needed to make areas safer. In the past year, various reports, including one from a retired group of firefighters from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, have called for many changes in training, communications and equipment. There is also the need to fight blazes early and decisively, which was an issue a year ago in Yarnell, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times found.
Yarnell Hill is a 5,959-foot peak in the Weaver Mountains, southwest of Prescott. The western side drops in a series of cliffs toward the small town of Congress. The east side slopes into a valley that includes Peeples Valley to the north and, to the south, Yarnell, a former gold mining town on State Highway 89, now home to about 650 people.
Lightning struck at 5:30 p.m. June 28, 2013, igniting a small fire that was called in to authorities. The small Yarnell fire department was mostly volunteers, and it needed help. The fire was on state-owned land, however, and a dispatcher said the state would deal with it even though a crew couldn't get there until the next morning.
On Saturday morning, worried about the dangerous topography where the fire was burning and worsening weather, others called for help.
Early Saturday, the fire might have been doused with minimal effort, but state officials responded slowly and without effective coordination. By late Saturday, the fire had gained ground, consumed 100 acres and kept burning. By the time an elite firefighter unit, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, arrived Sunday, the fire had almost tripled in size.
On that Sunday, June 30, 2013, the fire, fed by fuel and strong winds, continued to grow until it had devoured some 8,400 acres. In the battle against the blaze, 19 of the 20 members of the hotshot crew died, the worst loss of life in a U.S. wildfire since the 1930s.
Officials, within and outside government have studied the events and agree preventive measures should be undertaken. But many require more money, and Arizona faces a half-billion-dollar shortfall in its 2017 budget. Lawmakers were not willing to go beyond the bill that passed, Kavanagh said.
At one point, an earlier version of the bill would have funneled $25 million from the state general fund for forest thinning projects and work to promote forest health on state lands. Other proposed measures — from upgrading building codes to requiring fireproof roofs in high-fire-risk areas — would have brought sweeping changes.
For instance, one piece of legislation would have changed zoning to prevent construction in fire-prone areas, but that bill didn't make it out of committee. Kavanagh, who authored the bill, said rural interests would not support it.
Other similar measures were derailed this year due to mostly cost and property-rights concerns, Kavanagh said.
Lawmakers were also distracted with other issues. Much of the spotlight was taken by a controversial state bill that would have bolstered a business owner's right to refuse service to gays and others on the basis of religion.
Earlier this week, a contingent of retired firefighters from the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service released a report after analyzing the deaths of firefighters since the 1990s. They called for immediate changes to prevent additional firefighter deaths.
The group discovered that none of the firefighters working of the Yarnell Hill fire were issued maps of the area.
"When the critical time came to determine their location, they could only confirm that they were on the south side of the fire. This was moments before the fire overtook the crew. If their exact location had been known, a retardant drop could have been made in an attempt to save the crew."
The group noted that while fire shelters are a requirement for firefighters, maps are not.