Apparently No Mistakes Were Made in Yarnell Fire

The official report is out, and apparently absolutely no mistakes were made by anyone leading to the deaths of 19 in the Yarnell Hill fires.  Despite the fact that -- these 19 men were totally out of communication;  and no one knew where they were; and they entered a ridiculously dangerous patch of ground; and they were not pursuing any coherent goal anyone can name -- no one made any mistakes and there is nothing here to learn from.  Wow.

Here is my analysis of what is going on with this report:  Substantial mistakes were made by both the fire team and by their leaders.  Their leaders wrote the report, and certainly were not going to incriminate themselves, particularly given that they likely face years of litigation.  They could have perhaps outlined the mistakes the team made, but the families and supporters of the dead men would have raised a howl if the dead firefighters were blamed for mistakes while the leadership let themselves off the hook, and surely would have pushed back on the culpability of the firefighting effort's management.

So this report represents an implicit deal being offered to the families -- we will let your dead rest in peace by not highlighting the mistakes they made if you will lay off of us and the mistakes we made.   We will just blame it on God (I kid you not, see Prescott chief's statements here).  Most Arizonans I know seem willing to have these folks die as heroes who succumbed to the inherent risks of the profession, rather than stupid errors, so we may never have an honest assessment of what happened.  And yet again the opportunity to do a major housecleaning of wildland firefighting is missed.


  1. Mole1:

    "Most Arizonans I know seem willing to have these folks die as heroes who succumbed to the inherent risks of the profession, rather than stupid errors..."

    I think this (and the previous post you link) are unfair. Stupid errors are inherent risks of the profession. Firefighters have to make risk/reward estimates for any course of action as part of their profession. Usually those estimates will be about right, and some will be at the tail ends of the distribution, i.e., brilliant or stupid. Firefighters get credit for risking their lives, including credit for taking the risk that someone misjudged the risks badly and credit for taking risks based on their own judgment.

  2. marque2:

    So God made mistakes? Eeek!

  3. Another_Brian:

    Look on the bright side: It doesn't look like this particular report placed any blame on catastrophic climate change.

  4. MingoV:

    @Mole 1

    Stupid errors (as opposed to unavoidable errors) are not inherent risks of any profession. My brother-in-law and his wife were forest fire fighters for 30 and 25 years, respectively. Every spring their fire fighting teams underwent training: physical (long hikes up and down mountains while packing 80 pounds of gear), fire fighting techniques, how to read fires in different circumstances, and how to deal with unexpected events. My brother-in-law was a team leader and handled scores of fires not just in the Cascades (their base) but all over the USA (and also a big fire in Canada). In all those 30 years, not one team member died. Proper training and skillful leadership prevent stupid errors.

    Years back there were multiple fire fighter fatalities in Colorado. My brother-in-law and his headquarters boss stated that the deaths were avoidable and were caused by team leader mistakes and headquarters mistakes. The Arizona situation is similar.

  5. mesocyclone:

    Since the main problem appears to have been with communications, it's not clear to me where the error lies. Certainly the crew should not have stayed out of communications, but only they could affect that. Given the information situation, they may have thought that they were "just another hundred yards" from communications. Who knows.

    I've done a lot of work with communications and emergency communications, and I know that these mountain topologies cause real problems. If nobody had mapped the area for comms (and I doubt they had in detail - it's pretty expensive when you have to do most of the state), then nobody could anticipate this particular problem.