July 1, 2013, YARNELL, Ariz. -- 19 Prescott-based firefighters died Sunday afternoon fighting the lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill fire. May they all rest in peace. Prayers to their families.
Are these 19 deaths truly 'unimaginable' as Gov. Jan Brewer and others say? Probably not. This tragedy seems predictable, and avoidable.
I was professionally trained as a US wildland firefighter and resource advisor. I've long worked with fire policy and land conditions as an ecologist, conservationist and former state lawmaker (Ranking Member on House Natural Resources Committee). I've been on fires and watched fires in Arizona and the southwest for 20 years.
It seems likely that questionable decisions were made that lead to these deaths. A full independent investigation is essential to provide details so this never happens again.
Did fire bosses send the Granite Mountain Hotshots in to an area too dangerous where they shouldn't have been?
Have decades of full fire suppression, urban sprawl, livestock grazing, invasive plants, lack of defensible space around buildings, and other preventable factors lead to these deadly explosive fire conditions?
Are economic, political and insurance industry concerns too strong in wildland firefighting, leading to unsafe decisions to risk lives to try saving buildings that may not be salvageable?
Did fire bosses overlook predictable weather conditions during a bad
drought on a record hot day where monsoon storms and wind were starting
Wildlands firefighters are dedicated, brave professionals ready to risk their lives to save our lives, but after people are out of harms way should they be put at such risk to try to save buildings? No, especially if the property owners have done little to nothing to clear vegetation away from their buildings to create defensible space to allow a fire to safely pass by.
If a community is protected with defensible space then wildfires can mostly safely burn around the community, protecting lives and buildings. How much defensible space work was done around the communities affected by this fire? How many buildings burned had no defensible space? Were the firefighters killed trying to fight part of the fire threatening buildings without defensible space?
Too many politicians will praise these dead men without asking fire bosses tough questions about how and why they died and was it avoidable. Their timid, limited approach is an unintentional disrespect to these lost firefighters, and fails to learn from mistakes made so mistakes are not repeated to kill more in the future.
Too often we fail to prepare and when wildfires hit we expect firefighters to save everything. It isn't wise or possible. Sadly, these 19 brave firefighters died trying to protect buildings. No life is worth a building that can be rebuilt, especially if the owner has been irresponsible by failing to clear flammable vegetation away from his buildings.
We should all work together to protect firefighters and everyone by restoring the land and creating more defensible buildings in wildfire areas. We must be willing to protect our communities and wildland firefighters, to 'fight fire with fire' and let natural-caused wildfires burn whenever feasible.
RIP Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost their lives: Ashcraft, Andrew - Age: 29 Caldwell, Robert - Age: 23 Carter, Travis - Age: 31 Deford, Dustin - Age: 24 MacKenzie, Christopher - Age: 30 Marsh, Eric - Age: 43 McKee, Grant - Age: 21 Misner, Sean - Age: 26 Norris, Scott - Age: 28 Parker, Wade - Age: 22 Percin, John - Age: 24 Rose, Anthony - Age: 23 Steed, Jesse - Age: 36 Thurston, Joe - Age: 32 Turbyfill, Travis - Age: 27 Warneke, William - Age: 25 Whitted, Clayton - Age: 28 Woyjeck, Kevin - Age: 21 Zuppiger, Garret - Age: 27
UPDATE, Dec 4: Yesterday Arizona Game & Fish Dept. managers confirmed the state recently killed two mountains lions suspected of preying on two of these reintroduced bighorns. The state is sticking to its position that they will kill any lion suspected of preying on just one bighorn, a strict standard many Arizonans view as excessive and too rigid, especially given AZGFD doesn't know or won't say how many lions may live in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Lack of clear, timely communications by AZGFD is a problem, as is lack of clear standards to justify killing lions. I, and many, still want the bighorns to make it in the Catalinas, but we are also justifiably concerned about 'zero tolerance' kills of mountain lions, lack of data on mountain lion numbers, and lack of clear limits on killing lions. It's a tough balance to find, if the state is truly aiming for balance, which is not clear. AZGFD is saying 'trust us', but the lack of detailed information and the state's historic anti-predator views and actions do not inspire trust or confidence in this situation. Let me know, AZGFD, if I may help.
Nov 19, TUCSON -- I was inspired to be part of the Nov 18 release of 31 wild desert bighorn sheep to the Santa Catalina Mountains, as Ecologist and Southwest Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Bighorn were extirpated from this Arizona sky island range in the early 1990s due to poor habitat management. Monday's important action to restore iconic bighorns to the Catalinas was sparked by Aspen Fire benefits to habitat, dedicated conservation advocates and increasing public awareness and support. To survive and thrive, bighorn will need fire and careful recreation and habitat management by the US Forest Service - Coronado National Forest, Arizona Game & Fish Dept., Arizona State Parks and others. See videos below, both by Daniel R. Patterson