Society

Arizona Forestry Division Put Property Over People In Deaths Of 19 Firefighters, State Report Charges

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The 19 Arizona firefighters who died in an out-of-control hillside blaze on June 30 lost their lives because the state’s Division of Forestry made protecting property a higher priority than the firefighters’ safety.

That is the conclusion of a report released yesterday by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which issued citations to the forestry division of $25,000 per firefighter killed in the inferno, as well as other fines that bring the total penalty to $559,000, the largest ever issued by the safety and health agency.

An earlier report compiled by a team of investigators in September found differently. That report said that there was no negligence involved in the deaths, though poor communication was a factor.

The new report found “multiple instances of firefighters being unnecessarily and unreasonably exposed to the deadly hazards of wildland firefighting.”

The 19 men who died belonged to an elite team of front-line firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The fire began two days earlier, resulting from a lightning strike. But fire managers downplayed the threat of the wildfire and put off firefighting operations until the following day, and also neglected to do a proper analysis of the fire which led to increased safety risks later, the new report said.

The Hotshots team was sent in despite their fatigue from having just fought two previous fires, a factor that may have led them to make poor decisions, such as failing to properly check all escape routes.

The team was trapped when thunderstorm-driven winds turned the flames in their direction just as they were setting up fire shelters, according to the report. The 2,000-degree heat made the blaze that swept over their deployment site “not survivable, the report said.

The team had also neglected to factor the strong winds into figuring out how fast they needed to move from place to place before the fire reached them, the reports said.

SOURCES: New York Times, CNN