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Arizona firefighters lacked a proper escape route

The 19 wildland firefighters killed in Arizona appeared not to have established an escape route to a safe site large enough for the entire group, a forestry official said Monday.

Safety protocols require crews to have a place to go in case fire overtakes them. That did not happen in the Yarnell Hill fire Sunday. The bodies of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were found in or near their emergency fire shelters, leading officials to believe they were overrun by the wind-driven flames.

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“Obviously it wasn’t a big enough open field … if they had to deploy their shelters,” said Art Morrison, a spokesman with the Arizona State Forestry Division.

WHO THEY WERE: Fallen Arizona firefighters

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“They were too close to heavy fuels, so they got overrun,” he said.

Being overtaken by a fire you are striving to extinguish is a firefighter’s worst nightmare, but it is not uncommon: Of the more than 1,000 fatalities among wildland firefighters since 1910, about 63% occurred during “burnover,” when a fire front engulfed crews.

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On Sunday, the grass fire had run through half of the Arizona town of Yarnell when the unpredictable winds shifted. About 4:30 p.m., fire managers lost radio contact with the crew.

The firefighters had been cutting lines at the front of the fire, the most perilous place to be, officials said. Placing a crew at the head of a fire is a rare tactic.

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“Overall, we don’t try to get out ahead of the fire and try to fight it,” said Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Ground tactics usually call for flanking a fire, he said.

That’s because crews at the head of a fire have no choice but to back up in the face of oncoming flames — and they usually have nowhere to go but into the unburned landscapes that contain more fuel for the blaze. Firefighters often speak of fighting with one foot “in the black” — standing on already burned ground, which affords them a non-flammable escape route.

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Sunday’s deaths — the biggest single loss of wildland firefighters in the U.S. since 1933 — underscore that firefighting is a deeply dangerous pursuit. Even when crews adhere to strict safety protocols, an unforeseen shift of wind can unravel the most careful precautions.

In burnovers, often the only thing between firefighters and the heat and flames is a portable fire shelter, stuffed in a four-pound pack that all members of the crew carry. The tent-like device can be quickly deployed and enable a person to crawl inside. Its aluminum foil laminate coating repels heat.

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Fire shelters are most effective against fast-moving fires that pass over quickly. They are not intended to withstand flames or severe heat. Officials on the scene said some of the 19 firefighters deployed their shelters and others were found in the open.

Wind is one of the most feared and unpredictable factors. It is possible for a crew to be positioned in a safe spot one moment, only to be overrun after a sudden wind shift — but strict safety guidelines are intended to prevent that risk.

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PHOTOS: Yarnell Hill fire

Each tactical decision that fire managers make must be backstopped with a safe alternative in case conditions change.

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Michelle Ryerson, national fire and aviation safety manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said fire commanders worked through a risk management process “looking at potential ‘what if’ scenarios.”

“What if we have a wind shift and this is where we have folks?” she said. “There is a plan for that.”

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Fires are volatile events, characterized by sudden and deadly lurches.

On Monday, local, state and federal authorities remained more focused on fighting the blaze and paying tribute to the fallen firefighters than on sorting out how an investigation would proceed.

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State and city officials are expected to take the lead because the firefighters who perished were all from a local crew. They are likely to receive help from Washington. The U.S. Forest Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have experience in investigating fatal blazes.

A congressional inquiry also could be on the horizon.

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Firefighters are not always eager to see investigators.

“These investigations can become, ‘Let’s find the guy who made the decision. Let’s hang him out to dry,’” said Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Assn., a national advocacy group for firefighters that is based in Idaho. “It’s a terrible thing to do to say, ‘You make a split-second life-or-death decision on something like a wildfire, and if someone dies, we will hold you responsible.’”

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Judd’s organization is working to overturn a 2002 federal law requiring the inspector general’s office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate any time Forest Service employees die in the type of blaze that killed the Arizona firefighters.

But Tom Harbour, national director for fire and aviation management at the Forest Service, emphasized that investigators would not focus on assigning blame.

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“‘Investigation’ connotes a sense of looking for wrong,” Harbour said. “There is no wrong to be found here. When one firefighter dies, we all feel the pain. The only reason we take a look at these accidents is to try to find out how we might go another 80 years — hell, I hope we go another 100 years — before we might have another of these tragedies.”

julie.cart@latimes.com

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evan.halper@latimes.com

Cart reported from Los Angeles and Halper from Washington.

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