Remembering the Yarnell 19 – Incident Management

CarolinaFireJournal - David Greene
David Greene
10/10/2014 -

All too often, we read (and write) about a place and a number. The FDNY 343, the Worcester 6, and the Charleston 9 all instantly bring a visceral reaction among firefighters across the country. While our normal reaction to these line of duty deaths is emotional, ultimately we must impose logic against the circumstances of the incidents. 

On June 28, 2013, a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona was ignited by lightning in a remote area above the adjacent towns of Prescott and Yarnell.

It is at that point when we try to learn from the circumstances and prevent them from re-occurring, that we truly honor the deaths of these brave men. This issue, we will be discussing the latest painful place and number — the Yarnell 19.

On June 28, 2013, a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona was ignited by lightning in a remote area above the adjacent towns of Prescott and Yarnell. The Yarnell Hill area was primed to burn because of extreme drought, decaying chaparral and above average cured grass loadings. The Yarnell Hill area had also not experienced a wildfire in over 45 years.

During the first night, the fire was less than an acre and due to weather conditions, no personnel were placed on the fire ridge. Air tankers were used in an attempt to box in the fire. The following morning, the type IV Incident Manager ordered crews to engage the fire, which had grown to six acres by the evening of the 29th. A type II Incident Management Team (IMT) was requested on the 29th. Twenty firefighters from the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) responded to the south end of the fire to establish an anchor on June 30th.

While working throughout the day, a thunderstorm warning was issued and personnel on the incident expected an increase in wind speeds. When the thunderstorm approached, the winds picked up and began to shift. After the thunderstorm passed, an outflow boundary caused the winds to shift significantly and increase tremendously. The Granite Mountain IHC lookout (20th firefighter) had to be evacuated by vehicle when the right flank became the fire’s head and began spotting, hitting the lookout’s trigger point. The Granite Mountain IHC then left their area on the rear of the fire and began to use their escape route towards a ranch which was a pre-established safe area.

As the Granite Mountain IHC descended from the ridge, it is thought their vision of the fire was severely limited by peaks between their path and the fire. What they didn’t see was that the outflow boundary produced a wind shift that caused what was the right flank early on the 30th to now be the left flank. The head of the fire was now pointed directly at the Granite Mountain IHC, cutting off their escape route. They advised the Command Post that their escape route was cut off and they were preparing an emergency shelter deployment site. Tragically, it is estimated that due to wind speeds, the fire was travelling between 10 and 12 miles per hour. This left the Granite Mount IHC only two minutes to prepare a deployment site by running chain saws and burning out around the site before the fire arrived. The only surviving member of the Granite Mountain IHC was the lookout that was evacuated by vehicle.

A type II IMT assumed command of the fire late on the 30th. During that day, the fire grew from 300 acres in size to over 2,000 acres in size. A type I IMT assumed command early on July 1st. The incident progressed from a Type IV Incident Commander to a Type I IMT in just over 20 hours. Ultimately, the fire was placed under control on July 10th after burning over 8,300 acres requiring over 600 firefighters and various resources.

Being in charge of an incident where someone dies is a terrifying proposition. I’ve often written about how much easier it is to run into a fire than it is to run one from a vehicle in the front yard. Incident complexities can quickly overwhelm an Incident Commander. Moreover, for any local jurisdiction, you frequently call for all of your available officer corps to support initial operations.

For example, my jurisdiction experienced an overturned gasoline tanker truck with minimal leak in late summer a few years ago. Coordination of traffic re-routing, air monitoring, local evacuations, coordination with trucking company, highway patrol, and a clean-up contractor quickly required multiple officers handling various responsibilities. The question is, what do you do after one or two operational periods (more than 24 hours)? You cannot expect a local incident management team to continue functioning without sleep forever.

This is where incident management teams can save you. Beyond one operational period (12 hours), the local Incident Commander should consider use of a Type III IMT. These teams can help produce or update an Incident Action Plan for the event, assist with accountability, provide the documentation required for financial recovery and document equipment and actions at the scene. The best part is that these teams are basically free. They require an area in which they can work, food for members, paper products/supplies and a place to stay overnight. The overnight stay doesn’t have to be a Hilton hotel — a gym floor or fire station will suffice.

The Type III IMT does not necessarily assume command of your incident, but rather supports the local jurisdiction in its incident mitigation efforts. While an IMT was not eventually needed at our gasoline tanker because the incident only lasted about 16 hours, anytime your jurisdiction experiences a natural disaster, terrorist incident, train derailment, aircraft incident, or any complex incident that will involve multiple agencies, jurisdictions, or last more than one or two operational periods, an IMT should be considered.

If you are not already aware, you should get to know where your local IMTs are — there are four Type III IMT’s in South Carolina. A Type II and Type I IMT are typically implemented based upon the number of personnel operating at the incident. When operations personnel are between 50 and 200, a Type II IMT should be considered. A Type I IMT can handle an incident with more than 500 to 1,000 personnel. There are 35 Type II IMTs and 16 Type I IMTs across the country.

IMTs can assist with logistical, fiscal, planning, operational, safety and community issues during the incident. As the Incident Commander in Yarnell, Arizona realized prior to the deaths of 19 firefighters, anytime an incident appears to be escalating beyond the control of just a few local incident managers, an incident management team should be considered.

A Type II team was ordered in Yarnell prior to the movement of the Granite Mountain IHC. However, the need for that team was very evident after the Yarnell 19 were found at their deployment site. Remember the old adage, by the time you realize the need for more help, it is already too late. Be proactive, identify the long and/or complex incidents early, and call for an IMT to assist whenever needed.

Remember the Yarnell 19 — be safe, and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Issue 33.4 | Spring 2019

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