Report To Detail What Led To Deaths Of 19 Ariz. Firefighters

In Arizona, the state Forestry Division will release its official report Saturday regarding the the Yarnell Hill fire, where 19 elite firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hot Shots were killed. The deaths shook firefighters across the country. They and others hope the report addresses problems they see in current firefighting policies.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. In Arizona tomorrow, forestry officials will release their findings about the circumstances that led to this summer's deadly Yarnell Hill fire. It's one of the worst wildfire fighting disasters in American history. Nineteen elite firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hot Shots in nearby Prescott, Arizona, were killed.

NPR's Kirk Siegler covered that fire and has this update on the eve of the report's release.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Investigators have not leaked a word about the contents of this report or how damning it may be, but there are plenty on the outside who think that those 19 men shouldn't have been where they were on that Sunday afternoon of June 30th. The Yarnell Hill fire was burning so intensely, it created its own weather. The wind shifted, emergency fire shelters were deployed, the absolute last resort for wildland firefighters.

JOHN MCCLEAN: How could an entire Hot Shot crew, the best of the best, minus one, get wiped out on a fire anymore? It doesn't happen. It is not supposed to happen.

SIEGLER: John McClean has written four books about deadly wildfires, including an investigation into the 1994 South Canyon fire in western Colorado. That blaze killed 14 firefighters. McClean said it led to a lot of changes in federal fire fighting policy and overall, today, firefighting is much safer.

MCCLEAN: That's why the Granite Mountain Hot Shot disaster is such a troubling occurrence. We all thought we had got beyond this.

SIEGLER: But since 1994, U.S. firefighting policy has shifted dramatically to one of protecting homes and even whole cities that have been built out into the woods. There's more and more pressure to save these places. This has also been occurring as Western forests have been stricken by severe drought and hotter and longer summers, all of this creating a new type of catastrophic wildfire. Experts like John McClean and some retired forest officials hope the Yarnell Hill fire investigation will lead to a stand-down for firefighters, a complete rethinking of U.S. firefighting policy.

One of the only things clear now, though, on the eve of its release is that the disaster took a toll on firefighters the rest of the season. Take Ariel Ortega(ph), a captain on the California-based Del Rosa Hot Shots, one of the oldest crews in the nation. He was taking a break recently on the front lines of this season's largest, the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park.

ARIEL ORTEGA: It's hard on everybody and it is a little bit hard on morale, but you know, we understand the job and the things that happen. Unfortunately it happened to 19 folks at one time.

SIEGLER: Ortega says the Granite Mountain Hot Shots are on everyone's minds, maybe his especially since his, as a captain, he's someone who's charged with making split second decisions on whether to go in or pull back.

ORTEGA: Investigation hopefully comes out with a lot of lessons learned and will hopefully help us prevent that from ever happening again.

SIEGLER: If nothing else, Ortega says the disaster has shed more light on what Hot Shot crews do and the calculated risks all firefighters face. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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