Slow response, predictable storm precursors to Hotshot deaths
PEEPLES VALLEY— Ninety-four-year-old Barbara Kelso was having dinner in a restaurant in this small ranching community 90 miles northwest of Phoenix on Friday, June 28 when she saw a lightning bolt strike the hills a few miles away. Moments later, smoke started billowing skyward.
Kelso, who retired in December as chairman of the Yarnell Fire District Board after serving seven years, immediately called 911.
"They said they heard of the smoke and someone was checking," Kelso said during an impromptu interview at the Southwest Incident Management Command center where officials are directing firefighting operations for the Yarnell Hill fire that has burned more than 8,200 acres.
Kelso works as a volunteer for the Command, which is based in a local middle school. "I think I saw the lightning bolt that started the fire," she said during a July 5 interview.
While Kelso was immediately alarmed because she knew that a record-breaking heat wave had just finished blistering the already drought-stricken chaparral draped across the high-desert mountains surrounding Yarnell, the Arizona State Forestry Division and U.S. Bureau of Land Management reacted slowly.
No crews were sent until the next day, June 29, and by then, the fire was beginning to take hold.
The slow reaction to what was initially a manageable wildfire was a prelude to the disaster that soon followed. Nineteen of the 20 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot crew were killed sometime after 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 30 as a powerful thunderstorm created a swirling ring of fire engulfing the men.
Mounting evidence is now indicating that the hotshot crew, for unknown reason, hiked nearly head on into a line of violent thunderstorms that National Weather Service meteorologists had been tracking all day from Flagstaff, about 92 miles northeast of Peeples Valley.
The Yarnell Fire Department recognized the threat posed by the thunderstorms and posted warnings early Sunday alerting residents to prepare to evacuate because of the thunderstorms forecast for later that afternoon.
The thunderstorm band was among the first of the so-called "Monsoon" season in Arizona that develops every summer as humidity slowly rises. The initial thunderstorms of the season, meteorologists say, often pack very strong winds, with frequent lightning strikes and little rain.
"The conditions were ripe for getting a good gust front," said Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington said Friday. "Meteorologists should have had no issue with this. The question is, were they (Hotshots) warned by the people in Flagstaff. The whole thing seems bizarre, especially today when you can have a weather app on your cell phone."
That's not a question anyone wants to answer now as preparations are underway for the transfer of the firefighters' bodies from a Phoenix morgue back to Prescott on Sunday and a Tuesday memorial service that is expected to include Vice President Joe Biden.
The Prescott Fire Department, where the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was based, declined to comment Friday when asked about the weather conditions at the time of the firefighters' deaths and what weather information was available to the crew. The Yarnell Fire Department did not return a phone call. The Arizona Forestry Division did not return a phone call and email seeking comment. The division is sponsoring a joint state and federal task force investigating the firefighter deaths.
The investigation team has stated it would provide a preliminary assessment as early as this weekend. In the meantime, no official statements have been released.
Jim Wallmann, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Reno and who arrived at the Yarnell Hill fire zone on July 2, said the thunderstorm developed near Flagstaff midday on June 30 and moved southwest off the Mogollon Rim towards the fire on Yarnell Hill.
"The storm kept redeveloping and pushed through the fire" between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., he said. This was the same time the hotshot crew was attacking the fire in an effort to protect Yarnell and surrounding communities.
Wallman said there was no meteorologist on the ground with firefighters near Yarnell Hill at the time the Granite Mountain Hotshots began trekking toward the fire around 3 p.m. The Flagstaff NWS office was closely tracking the storm front, but Wallmann said he did not know if information was relayed to the Hotshot crew.
"Any calls between Flagstaff or anything like that, that's something the investigation team is going to look at, meteorologists are going to look at very closely," Wallmann said in a July 4 interview at a roadblock on U.S. 89 north of Peeples Valley.
The fact that the National Weather Service knew a line of thunderstorms was bearing down on Yarnell Hill hours before the Granite Mountain Hotshots marched to the front line is counter to the storyline that has been generated all week and echoed by the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets that firefighters were caught in a "sudden" thunderstorm.
"That is just not true," University of Washington meteorologist Mass said. "A lot of people were tracking that storm."
In a July 2 blog, Mass included charts, graphics, video and scientific explanations describing the thunderstorm front as it enveloped Yarnell Hill.
"Hours before the incident it was clear there was a real threat…satellite and radar showed developing convection to the north that was moving south towards the fire," Mass writes. "High-resolution numerical models showed a threat. Were there any meteorologists working the fire? If not, why not? This terrible tragedy needs to be reviewed carefully."
The day after the firefighters were killed, a federal multi-agency team took control of fighting the blaze from the state. Under the direction of the new command team, wildfire fighters were repeatedly pulled off the front lines when thunderstorms were forecast for the area.
No one seemed too concerned about the fire the morning after Ms. Kelso called 911.
The Yarnell Fire Department issued a 7:30 a.m. press release on Sat., June 29 stating that BLM crews were assessing the fire that started at the bottom of Yarnell Hill and that there was "no danger" to Yarnell and no evacuation was required.
In a 10 a.m. release, the department said the Arizona State Forestry Division was managing the fire and that 40 personnel were involved, including two engines, two air tankers and a helicopter. The release again emphasized no danger to the community.
By 2 p.m. the Yarnell Fire Department stated the fire was estimated at four acres and a six-person crew had cut a firebreak to keep the fire from heading toward Yarnell and the neighboring community of Congress. Again, the department emphasized there was no danger to the communities.
But by 8 p.m., Sat., June 30, the tone of the releases began to change. The fire had increased to 15 acres. The department warned Yarnell residents to be on "high alert" if the wind direction changed. For the first time, the department stated that evacuation was a possibility. The release stated the state and the BLM were jointly managing the fire operations.
An hour later, another release stated the fire had grown to 200 acres with zero percent contained.
The department's low level of concern about the fire conditions throughout most of Saturday stands in sharp contrast to what Kelso says happened.
"By Saturday morning it was full blown," she said. "We could see the flames."
Kelso said she saw one air tanker dropping slurry on the fire. "It took them a while to get here, but they had a long way to come," she said.
By Saturday afternoon, Kelso was packing up provisions and some special keepsakes, including her great-great-grandmothers silver set. She left her home, which survived the inferno that later swept through much of Yarnell destroying or damaging more than 100 structures. She hasn't been back home since.
The next morning, Sunday, June 30, brought more bad news. "The community should be on high alert," a Yarnell Fire Department bulletin posted at 6:30 a.m. stated.
The department issued an evacuation warning in an 11 a.m. release, which included the first prediction of afternoon thunderstorms. "The community should be on high alert particularly since we are expecting thunderstorms this afternoon," the alert stated.
Thirty minutes later, the first evacuations were ordered and the thunderstorm warning was reissued. The fire was upgraded to a "Type 2 Incident", which brings in additional resources. The fire was still officially at 200 acres, but it was "growing".
By 1:15 p.m., the Yavapai County Sheriffs Department was going door-to-door ordering evacuations. And, once again, the thunderstorm warning was included in the alert.
Kelso, who has lived in Yarnell for 32 years and worked in the community for 25 years as a substitute school teacher, said it was common knowledge in Yarnell that winds during thunderstorms were unpredictable.
"Yarnell is in a bowl with the mountains all around, so winds swirl when they get here," she said.
The threat and danger from the impending band of powerful thunderstorms that could turn a relatively tame fire into a raging inferno was clear to the Yarnell Fire Department before 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 30.
What is unknown now is what the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew knew about the approaching line of powerful thunderstorms as they headed into the fire zone, and who ordered them in.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the thunderstorm's 40 mph wind gust hit Yarnell Hill, reversing the wind direction that had been generally from the south by 180 degrees. The fire suddenly reversed direction and began moving at a very rapid rate towards the hotshot crew cutting a fire line less than a mile from Yarnell.
Somewhere on a hillside, sandwiched between two ridges, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots found themselves suddenly surrounded by flames and smoke, stoked by a thunderstorm's powerful downdraft.
The men, clustered closely together, deployed their personal fire protection shelters in a desperate, futile, attempt to survive the conflagration.
This report was originally posted on InvestigativeMEDIA.com.
InvestigativeMEDIA founder John Dougherty has more than 30 years of experience in the mainstream and alternative news media working as an investigative reporter, business and political writer, columnist and publisher. He sought the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 2010.