The Granite Mountain Hotshots were truly heroes. Among the most elite fire-fighters in the world, not only were they “tough as nails,” one of the requirements for membership is “being nice.”
Sadly, I must say “were” because 19 of 20 members were killed fighting a wildfire in Arizona.
All the preparation in the world sometimes isn’t enough to ward off the fury of Mother Nature. Now it is time to honor their sacrifice, and attempt to live up to their example.
Yes, this incident was truly horrific. The loss is heartbreaking.
And this fire season appears to be living up–if that’s the phrase–to a nasty advance billing, what with the massive Colorado fires, and even bigger acreages burning in Alaska. 1.5 million acres have been burned so far this year, about 60% of the way to the decadal average:
And while heat and drought hit the US west hard, resources shrink:
Oh, yeah, the fake lack of money. Something to contemplate in comparison to (for instance) Apple’s rapidly vanishing bill for services rendered by government (IP protection?) or the steady stream of gigantic televisions being loaded into vehicles at your local big box store on any given Saturday or Sunday.
Yeah, we can’t afford to fight fires, or launch weather satellites, or create another generation of educated people. Fortunately maudlin tears will always be completely free of charge.
What are you talking about?
This year has – according to your link to the NIFC – the lowest number of fires of any of the last 10 years shown. It has the second lowest number of acres burned. The values provided on that page are year-to-date, not annual values. Perhaps you have overlooked that. If you compare 2013 so far with previous years, this year is nowhere near record-breaking. It is quite on the opposite compared with the ten previous years on number of fires and acres burned an under-average fire season till now.
The long-term trend for the US however is still up:
[Response: There are very strong seasonal and geographic patterns in wildfire, and the season is still young. The early season is dominated by the southeast, which has had less fire than usual because of the extremely wet conditions in the eastern U.S., but in the west the season is mainly later in the year and since it has been drier than usual, the experts expect a very bad year. We really won’t know until the season is over, just how this year turns out.]
But as tragic as that event with the loss of 19 lives has been: That doesn’t mean, that this year is therefore an above-average fire season. When you look on the data it clearly is not.
But that doesn’t mean of course, that in the long-term wildfire risk has not increased and will not increase further. Even this year can still get a very bad fire season. As with nearly everything in the climate system, wildfires vary wildly between individual years and you therefore have to look on the long-term trend anyway, not on individual years. And for me it is obvious that wildfire risk has increased and will increase further, because spring/summer snow pack is decreasing and temperatures are rising. So the soil has less moisture and it dries up quicker. I would be very surprised if that would not result in an increasing wildfire risk.
You’re right, I overlooked the fact that *all* the figures are year-to-date.
But I didn’t claim that 2013 was, or would be, a ‘record-breaking’ year–merely a ‘nasty’ one. And, the present tragedy apart–‘nasty’ enough in itself but not quite what we are discussing at the moment–I rather think that that is still likely to be the case, for some of the reasons Tamino indicated.
I certainly agree with your comments about the long-term.
And what should NPR be talking about today? Sure enough:
They (cough, cough) didn’t misread the NIFC statistics…
Or, I hope, the (rough) budget numbers provided in the story:
As Tamino notes, we’re only just barely into the western fire season so far. Still way too early to know what the season will do.
Here in Northern California, we had our first fires in March. That’s not a typo – March, not May. Some 2 months early. Fuel conditions are ripe for a bad season. The heat this last week won’t help, although the effect is made a bit better with the relatively high humidity – in the 20s, not the typical 10% or so.
Fuel conditions alone dont make a bad season, of course. It also needs ignition – a series of dry July or August thunderstorms, typically, in N Cal. But I have relatives who live in wildfire country, my mother almost got burned out a few years back- her house got foamed, and then the fire diverted and burned along the other side of the ridge. They’re pretty seasoned at looking at the fuel and evaluating the risk. And all of them, every one, is not happy about this coming season.
Heroes who shouldn’t have died. Our conservative ‘friends’ in Congress keep cutting funds for these fire protection programs in an attempt to shield their fat cat constituency from tax increases all while doing everything they can to make the climate change induced monstrosity that killed these brave firefighters worse.
Such a tragic event. I cannot help but look up to my shelf at my copy of Norman Maclean’s “Young men and Fire” and empathise across the decades with both the Mann Gulch ‘Smokejumpers’, these ‘Hotshots’…and the families and friends they left behind
[Response: The word “hero” is often bandied about for all the fallen, but in this case, there is no doubt — these were heroes. We can take some solace in the fact that they had long careers with many successes, and their efforts were not in vain.]
Re: Tamino’s response
I agree with the hero part, but unfortunately I don’t think the rest is true. 14 of the 19 were in their 20s; 43 was the oldest by far.
“We can take some solace in the fact that they had long careers with many successes”
The leader who organized the unit was 43. The others averaged mid-20s (one was 21), so really, these were careers and lives cut very short.
My question–why were they so close to a bad fire? I think that they may have been put too close in a vain attempt to save the structures. Does anybody know if there is any information about this end?
From Jeff Masters’ blog:
“Radar imagery from Sunday showed numerous dry thunderstorms over the Yarnell area, and it is likely that the outflow from one of these thunderstorms caused a sharp wind shift and strong wind gusts that caused extreme fire behavior that overran the firefighters’ escape route. According to The Arizona Republic, the firefighters were trapped between two ridges when the winds suddenly reversed. A fire-monitoring station four miles from the fire measured nearly record combustion levels for the fuel on the ground, in the 97th percentile since the station was installed in 1985. The station measured southwest winds gusting to 15 to 25 mph at 4:01 PM. One hour later, ten minutes after the firefighters had deployed their fire shelters, the wind had reversed direction to northeast, and was gusting at 30 to 47 mph. “
In the kind of conditions being experienced, “let it burn” ain’t going to happen regardless of the presence of human structures relatively nearby (though my initial reaction was similar to yours).
I’m going to guess that it’s going to be similar to the South Canyon (Storm King) fire … in that case, at least one spot fire was ignited behind and below, but downwind, of the firefighters who were building a fire line in front of a slow-moving fire being pushed downslope by wind. The downslope burn was later estimated at being between 30 and 90 feet per hour. Then the wind shifted, the spot fire or fires below blew up, and raced upslope. The various groups of firefighters began hiking to the top of the ridge to get to the lee side, most (35) made it. The 12 who were trapped were hiking up an extremely steep grade at an estimated 1 to 3 feet per second. In contrast to the slow pace when the fire was burning downslope, the upward burn was moving at about 9 feet per second. One person of that group, a stronger hiker who had pulled 100 feet ahead, suffered 3rd degree burns over 10% of his body and was in the hospital for a couple of months. The entire sequence of events took about 15 minutes from when everyone on the mountain realized the fire was racing upslope from below (the 8 who survived in shelters were in them for a couple of hours, though).
I would expect something similar happened here. Fire line was being built. They were cut off from their safety zone after the wind shifted, so either there was some fire behind them that blew up, or the fire in front of them changed direction and managed to cut them off. In either case, at some point they were overrun. They didn’t make it to their safety zone so it’s obvious the fire was running very, very quickly.
Further to Old Salt’s question, Climate Central highlights an intriguing analysis of the unexpected growth of the Yarnell fire by the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, here:
Events outpaced information absorption:
“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has sent an incident meteorologist, known as an IMET, to be embedded with the Yarnell HIll firefighting teams. As specially trained National Weather Service meteorologists, IMETs work with firefighters on the ground to provide fire-specific forecasts that anticipate rapid changes in fire behavior. They don’t deploy unless requested by fire commanders at the scene.
The Yarnell Hill fire was initially small, and did not pose a major threat to homes until it rapidly expanded on Sunday. Firefighters did request a wildfire-specific “spot forecast” from the local National Weather Service forecast office Sunday, which warned of shifting wind conditions associated with afternoon thunderstorms.
In a press conference in Maryland on Tuesday, Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said that in many cases, IMET crews would have worked with hotshot crews such as the one that was overrun, but that no request had been made until after Sunday’s tragedy.”
“”Had we have been there maybe we would have had a better outcome”.
That seems a bit self-serving to me, and entirely unwarranted speculation, and smears the decision-making of the interagency fire management people. Let’s wait until the fire experts analyze what happened. South Canyon was studied to a level of detail similar to what you see after a major airline crash, and much was learned.
This was a small fire when it blew up and killed those poor hotshots. As fires grow, more and more of the limited fire fighting resources are deployed to it. Large fires don’t only have IMET people involved. The USFS has all sorts of trained staff involved. GIS people are constantly analyzing satellite images to inform fire managers as to what’s going on. Fire scientists are running models trying to predict where the fire will go as best they can. On the ground, fire supervisors are managing logistics, deployments, guided by the kind of information they’re getting.
Small fires, though … well, this is what jumpers, hotshots and helitack crews specialize in. Attacking small fires without all that infrastruture help, with polaskis, mccloud tools, chainsaws, building the initial line. Normally they succeed in controlling these small fires and you never hear about it in the news. And keep in mind that more wildfire fighters die in helicopter and highway accidents than from fire itself.
I should add that when/if we no longer have Earth observation capabilities of the kind we now enjoy because we choose low taxes and bigger televisions instead of fully funded civil government, we’ll no longer be bothered by experts trying to improve the situation on the ground for firefighters.
If by ‘structures’ you mean people’s homes. Please bear in mind the emotional and life impact of losing one’s home and possessions can easily rival physical injury in its traumatic nature.
The fire service do risk themselves to protect property. That is part of their role and is a valid part.
Chris–I do understand the impact of losing one’s home. However, fighting fire at the urban-forest interface is a fundamentally different challenge than fighting a wildfire in the boonies, especially with resources that are traditionally small compared to fighting a fire in a city. It means that the chances that have to be taken get larger, and unfortunately more firefighters are likely to die. Fire people have been pointing this out for almost 2 decades.
I’ve been spamming this song about the victims of the Mann Gulch fire, but it is truly appropriate:
That’s very sad. I’ll pray for them.
Having been in Australia during the devastating Black Saturday fires, I’ve seen just how awful things can be. Sincere condolences to all who’ve lost someone.
The Yarnell Hill Fire: The Meteorological Origins
“…. I find this disaster so unsettling. 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. 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.
“A number of media outlets called the strong winds unpredictable and random. This is not correct, as shown by the information I provided above.”
Cliff Maas, weather blogger, Seattle
“Were there any meteorologists working the fire? If not, why not? This terrible tragedy needs to be reviewed carefully.”
One of the interesting monday morning quarterbacking phenomena of events like this is that in the aftermath, people point and say “*THIS* was obviously the fire that was going to blow up and maybe kill people”.
One could ask “why aren’t meteorologists working every 200 acre lightning-strike fire in the west in fire season”. Then one might ask “how often does a 200 acre lightning-strike fire blow up and kill the most killed fighting a wildfire in 80 years?”.
Obviously, not often. Then one might ask, “how does one best spend one’s resources?”. After a disaster like this, the common response seems to be, “we should spend as much money as is needed to remove all risk!”. But the risk can’t be removed. It will always be low but non-zero.
The met people claiming they can reliably predict which 200 acre lightning strike fires are going to blow up could be put to the test. We could see if they do better than they do predicting the weather in Maas’s Seattle. My guess is they’re blowing smoke (no pun intended).
I put Cliff Maas in the same category as the opportunist quoted earlier. Some meteorologists seem to be jumping on this awfully early, seeing as of yet there’s been no analysis of the scene, no forensics that have been made public, etc. Pure speculation. The fire people have some really, really excellent fire behavioralists available, too. Why weren’t they involved? This was a 20 person team, one serving as lookout, 19 building line, the lookout saw that winds were changing and warned the team but it was too late.
A met person could’ve stated the obvious – “conditions are unstable, could change at any time!”. The crew *knew* that, that’s why a lookout was deployed. I doubt they could’ve said “exactly 27 minutes from now, winds will shift”.
And adding salt to the wound, Cliff Maas at times has expressed borderline climate science denialism in his published blog and other commentary …
I’ve done some volunteer work for fire crews, helping staff fire camps, serve food, keep soap and towels stocked in the showers, and so on. Fire crews come out of several days on the fire exhausted, dirty, hot and sweaty, sometimes sleep deprived, often aching and footsore from the walk and the work. They have every reason in the world to be cranky and irritable. But I’ve never known any of them, not one person, to be anything other than appreciative. And yes – the hotshot crews, the jumpers, even above that, almost always went out of their way to say thank you. Heroes, yes.
For the heroes, and sorry, guys, I am no English speaker, but I wanna thank to these guys for their courage and bravery and selfshless, as it is case for very most of the world’s rescuers and firefighters. Hat tips goes on with a “crappy” rhime of non English speaker, having his hearth where it should belong:
It was just I fire I’d wana flame out,
Never thinkin to put my family behind,
I just a wanna save the peoples homes,
I ran in the dangers I ve known,
I put my life on the line,
I hope did just the best,
My death was horrible as it came,
but it was worth my life spending it,
for my family and friends,
I’ll just shout aloud:
I’d do it again !!!
Thank you, Patrice.
In the old days we could depend on a recursion to the norm to ensure that fire crew tragedies were rare events.
However, right now we have more standing dead trees in our forests than ever before. We can expect unusual weather as a result of AGW. We need to adapt now, or we are going to lose more fire crews.
Everyone should be cutting WIDE fire breaks. Then, the fire crews can let fires burn right up to the fire break. They can let the fire come to them, and fight it where the fire crews have the advantage. The idea of fighting fires in the rugged back country is romantic, but it is not practical. Yes, a little more land area gets burned, but if you value your fire fighters, and one accounts for the cost of fire fighting, it is cost effective. We have new fire conditions. We need to take new precautions.
Hotshots should spend the off season laying out fire breaks and inspecting property owners fire break construction and maintenance. No, fire breaks would not be “mandatory” but any property without an approved system of fire breaks would not be entitled to fire protection.
“In the old days we could depend on a recursion to the norm to ensure that fire crew tragedies were rare events.”
They’re still rare events, and more rare than decades earlier. It’s been 19 years since the South Canyon fire. That’s a long time. Crew tradgedies aren’t increasing, quit trying to capitalize on this tragic event.
The investigation here is going to be interesting, because the hotshots had a lookout posted (who survived). This was a safety measure put in place after South Canyon. It didn’t help this crew. I’m sure it’s helped many who haven’t made the news because, well, they weren’t killed.
“Everyone should be cutting WIDE fire breaks. Then, the fire crews can let fires burn right up to the fire break.”
Ah, yes, fragment habitat further, further reduce wilderness, further reduce biodiversity and our biological heritage … for what, exactly?
We could mow down all of the whole damned national forests (timber industry loves that idea). That’s where this kind of thinking leads.
All good points. And where is the money going to come from for hotshot crews to spend off time cutting firelines? There isn’t enough money in the world to do all the fire prevention/habitat treatment/fuels management that fire and forestry staff thinks are needed. There are a variety of programs which help landowners create defensible space (http://www.firewise.org/, among others).
“No, fire breaks would not be “mandatory” but any property without an approved system of fire breaks would not be entitled to fire protection.” That happens now. If firecrews don’t feel they have defensible space, they triage what they’ve got to work with and move on. They’re not going to put crews at risk to save homes where the homeowner hasn’t done the work to create defensible space!
The thing about fire breaks is that they only work in normal conditions. During the Black Saturday bush fires in Australia, it was an incredibly hot, dry day with strong northerly winds. Embers were blown a long way and therefore fires could spring up anywhere. Fire breaks were of not much use.
To expand a bit on the comments by dhogaza and dbostrom and Monday morning quarterbacking; the common feature of Mann Gulch, Storm King and Yarnell Hills was that they were all relatively small fires that blew up. Climate Central has a good look at fire weather forecasting (http://www.climatecentral.org/news/incident-meteorologists-on-the-front-lines-of-wildfires-16189)
Dhogaza correctly notes that all fires have weather information available, even if they don’t have a dedicated NOAA meteorologist as part of the Incident Command structure. The team likely had a safety briefing at the start of the day/assignment and as dhogaza notes, they posted a lookout and recent reports suggest that the lookout did exactly what he was charged with; alerting the team to dramatically changing conditions which were forcing him to relocate.
What may be different here, and elsewhere, is that fire behavior models may be based on historical fire behavior that is no longer relevant in a changing climate. Firefighters reported fire behavior they’d never seen before.
As a former wildland firefighter my heart goes out to the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Anyone who has an interest in wildland fire;, Young Men and Fire, mentioned above is an incredible read.
“What may be different here, and elsewhere, is that fire behavior models may be based on historical fire behavior that is no longer relevant in a changing climate. Firefighters reported fire behavior they’d never seen before.”
Thanks for your comment. It’s becoming clear that a common thread between South Canyon and the AZ disaster is that both followed on a strong and lasting 180 degree shift in wind direction. What I’m reading now is that there weren’t significant spots fires behind the AZ hotshots position. They were only 1/4 mile from their safety zone … 440 yards (+/-) … apparently it curled around as the winds shifted.
“Firefighters reported fire behavior they’d never seen before.”
I sort of hate to say this, but many of them, if they’d seen such behavior before, might’ve died. And modern training is relatively recent, a few decades ago to get on the line you only needed to be able to dig with a shovel.
Again, while speculation is … fun?, let’s wait and see what the investigators find out.
Agreed. I hadn’t heard the +/- 400 meters number. That’s 4 minutes max.
I mentioned the fire behavior comment because it’s come up in several recent fires, not just here. You’re certainly right about fire training, and not necessarily that long ago…
It was a horrific event. Possibly not directly related, but overall, there seems to be a very high level of fire fighter fatalities in the US compared with other countries http://www.vafire.com/government_affairs/non_vdfp_studies/knowledge_based-Svensson.pdf
Which possibly reflects higher levels of optimism. Not a useful attribute when making life or death decisions.
CBC.CA has a relevant article, some of which reflects the data Tamino posted above:
Fires getting worse? A firefighter says “yes” and says why.