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Yarnell Fire Tragedy

Airdate: 2013-07-01
It’s the worst firefighter tragedy in Arizona history and the third worst in the U.S. history. A fire near Yarnell has claimed the lives of 19 firefighters and has destroyed half of the 500 structures in Yarnell. Jim Paxon, who became the face and voice of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire that ravaged Arizona forests in 2002, will talk about the tragedy and firefighting policy.

  • Jim Paxon - Wildfire Expert
Category: Community

Keywords: tragedy, wildfire, firefighters, Yarnell, around arizona,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. It's the worst firefighter tragedy in Arizona history, and the worst in the U.S. since 9/11. A wildfire near the town of Yarnell claimed the lives of 19 firefighters yesterday, leaving the state and the nation in disbelief and in mourning. Jim Paxon was the face and the voice in the air for the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002, and is currently with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Jim, thanks for joining us. This is a rough time for you, for a variety of reasons. I'll get to that in a little bit. Let's start with: What happened?

Jim Paxon: There was a number of crews out there. The Granite Mountain hotshot crew from Prescott was digging fire line on a portion of the fire. We don't know exactly what happened. An investigation team is going to look into exactly what happened and how. We know the fire burned over that crew, very violently, very quickly. They deployed their shelters and some may not have even got into their shelters. Those are big kind of pup tent looking metallic structures that you get into and pull around you, they are like a big kite when the wind's blowing. We have 19 fatalities. We're sad and very grieving.

Ted Simons: Those fire tents, they are told, what, dig as much of a hole as you can, lay down and wait?

Jim Paxon: No, you're supposed to clear any burnables away if you have time. But you get into them and they reduce the heat 80% to 90% from what's outside the shelter. You can be in them 10, 15 minutes with no problem. I think the heat was so extreme and it happened so fast the injuries were very rapid.

Ted Simons: Were they on a hillside? In a clearing? Talk about the terrain.

Jim Paxon: Well, the terrain is broken. I don't know exactly, Ted. That's a lot of the things that will come out in the investigation. They were on the edge of the fire, and they were building from a safe anchor towards the head of the fire, building fire line, digging line.

Ted Simons: When you say digging a fire line towards the head of the fire, if I'm digging here, the fire is this way or the fire is this way?

Jim Paxon: You're actually flanking the fire. But you go from a safe point that's kind of cold. You start to build your line. As the fire moves up the hill you flank it and try to pinch it off. there were others on the other side of the fire, digging line as well.

Ted Simons: In cases where the wind shifts, is it basically, we're working here because we know it's coming this way, and then just like that it comes this way?

Jim Paxon: We do know that there was thunderstorm activity in the area and there were what they call outflows, really hard, gusty winds 40 to 50 miles per hour. If they had an outflow come across the fireline and bring fire over them, it was quick and extremely violent.

Ted Simons: So quick maybe some didn't even have a chance to get into their fire tents?

Jim Paxon: We'll find out, but I believe that's the case.

Ted Simons: Talk about the hotshot team itself. What is a hotshot team?

Jim Paxon: There's type 1 crews, there are only 112 of them in the entire nation. They are 20-person crews. They are the most physically fit, most trained, most experienced. They work together about nine months a year, they are family that go to these fires. They become expert. They dig more line than the other kind of crew, a type 2 crew, which is crews that we use, and our Native Americans and some forest organizations put crews together. But they organize for the fire, and then they disorganize and disperse when they get back from that fire. Hotshots live with each other. Sometimes they work eight, 10 years on a hotshot crew with their buddies. They go hunting and bicycle riding, skiing in the winter, whatever they do. It's a very tight, close family.

Ted Simons: And obviously they had to have been working relatively close together, correct? Or not?

Jim Paxon: A lot of these hotshot crews build line so fast,if I've got a tool, I'll hit a lick. So I've got a digging tool, I'll hit a lick and move three or four feet. The next guy hits a lick, like that. By the time you get to 20, it's a trail with the vegetation removed. That's how you keep the fire from crossing that trail. So they have such teamwork, and such dedication, and they all work together. It's a marvelous machine.

Ted Simons: The nature of this fire, it sounds like chaparral, grass, this sort of thing. Talk to us about the fuel here, compared to the fuel in like a Rodeo-Chediski fire.

Jim Paxon: Well, the Rodeo-Chediski was forested. There were meadows and such, but this is a chaparral type. There's some pinon juniper. In the draw there's heavier fuels, catclaw and mesquite and palo verde. There's a lot of shinle oak and a lot of mountain mahogany. I just had a senior moment. There's a waxy-leafed plant that, when it gets really dry, it burns extremely hot, looks like an oilfield fire. Manzanita. Yes, manzanita. We had good winter rains in that country, and some of the grass was two feet tall and thick. Combination of fuels, a real flashy fast-moving fire.

Ted Simons: Can they be more dangerous? Certainly they behave differently, don't they?

Jim Paxon: They do. Desert fires are extremely fast. That country in Yarnell hadn't burned in 30 or 40 years. A lot of times a chaparral type will burn every 10 or 12 years. We're in the 20th year of a drought, extreme record temperatures, less than 5% humidity, gusty winds, the recipe for a perfect disaster.

Ted Simons: The federal incident management team apparently either is investigating or will investigate. What do they look at in a situation like this?

Jim Paxon: It's much like a criminal investigation. In fact, Yavapai County Sheriff's Office actually did the evidentiary photography. They went in there so they could remove the bodies, get those young men properly taken care of and down to the medical examiner's office. They probably took thousands of pictures. Once you move those bodies, that evidence is disturbed and you can never get it back. The investigators that will come in, all have extended fire experience, extended science backgrounds. A lot of research on how and why fires burn. There's even some weather folks and some social scientists that will be looking at this thing so they can try to reconstruct what happened, see what went wrong and try to have it not happen again.

Ted Simons: Is there a chance that everyone will look at this, that standard procedures were met, everything was done as best as humanly possible, but the simple fact of nature caused this, and there's not much man can do?

Jim Paxon: Well, yes and no. You know, on the Dude fire in 1990 we lost six firefighters. The first one down to those firefighters who discovered the first fatalities was so touched and so driven that he came up with what we call LCES, lookout, communications, escape routes and safety zones. That became almost bible to the firefighters. You had to know which way you went to get to a safe zone and where it was. You had to know your communications with your crew and overhead and with command. You needed to have a lookout on probably both ends of where you were working to spot and tell when your fire was approaching and trouble was coming. We've made such technological advances that this investigation will help firefighters, because we're going to try to see that what happened on the Yarnell hill fire will not happen to another hotshot crew.

Ted Simons: We should mention we have a couple of websites here for those who want to help the firefighters' families. Everybody's looking for something to do. We mentioned earlier, this is a shock to the system for everyone. For you personally, this has to be rough.

Jim Paxon: I spent 33 and a half years fighting fire with the U.S. Forest Service. I'm still a firefighter. This just took the wind out of me. When I found out I shed tears. I was on six fatalities in my career, I hoped not to see a seventh. And here we are. 19 lads went to work Saturday morning, none of them came home.

Ted Simons: Jim, we thank you for your time. Especially the information, and let's hope something, some kind of information from the investigation comes from this, so that we can keep something like this from happening again.

Jim Paxon: Ted, thank you for having me.

Ted Simons: Thank you.

Jim Paxon: You bet.