Hotshot insight: 8 questions about the Arizona wildfire tragedy

Wildland firefighting expert Bill Gabbert turns an eye to the tragedy in Arizona to make some sense out of what's already known


By Rick Markley

This week 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Ariz., died fighting a fierce wildland fire. As many know, that incident is now the single largest loss of firefighter lives since Sept. 11, 2001.

To help make sense of this tragedy, we turned to wildland fire expert Bill Gabbert, who was once himself a Hotshot.

Wildland fire expert Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire expert Bill Gabbert

Gabbert worked as a wildland firefighter in Southern California for 20 years, as well as in Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the fire management officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com, FireAviation.com, and Sagacity Wildfire Services. He also serves as an expert witness in wildland fire cases.

Are there any early lessons from this tragedy?
It is very early in the incident; it just happened 48 hours ago and we don't know exactly what happened yet. It is tough to say what any lessons learned might be.

Early indications are that weather was an important factor. I looked at some weather records recorded during the incident from a weather station four miles away. There was a major shift in wind direction; it changed 180 degrees.

Depending on where the firefighters were, that could have caught them by surprise. They may have been at the heel of the fire with the wind at their backs and suddenly they were at the head of the fire. This is still preliminary and we don't know exactly where the firefighters were. But, that the wind was gusting at 43 mph is something that needs to be looked at.

How bad is a 43 mph wind when fighting wildland fires?
There's no way you can fight a wildland fire when the wind is blowing that strong. The only thing you can do is retreat and get to a safe position or possibly work at the heel of the fire. But, it is pretty hard to predict wind direction changes caused by thunderstorms.

How long until investigators can piece this together?
Typically when the federal government conducts an investigation, it can take six to 18 months for the official version of the report to be released. This was a city of Prescott crew, unlike almost all of the other Hotshot crews in the nation — so the investigation will likely be overseen by Prescott. I'm sure they will have some help from state and federal agencies. It is unknown what procedures Prescott will use for the investigation.

Can you put the magnitude of this tragedy in perspective?
It is just shocking. It took my breath away. When I first heard it was 19 people, I thought, 'well, that has to be a mistake.' I was stunned, as I'm sure were many firefighters.

This is the greatest loss of life in a wildfire in 80 years. In 1933 there were about 29 firefighters who were killed in the fire at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The greatest loss of life was in 1910 during the Great Blowup fire when 78 firefighters lost their lives.

How can the risk of injury and death be reduced?
Firefighters need to maintain their situational awareness, always have an escape route and a safety zone, and have lookouts. I don't know if all of those things were done at the fire in Arizona. But all of those things need to be in the forefront of everyone's strategy and tactics when working a wildland fire.

What's the level of training for Hotshot crews?
The required training is standard. They have to have a certain number of people on a crew that are qualified for certain positions. There are requirements for the number of years of Hotshot experience that the crew members must have.

Those on a Hotshot crew have much more training and experience than you will find on a typical Type 2, 20-person crew of firefighters who don't normally work together. The Hotshot crews typically work together for six months out of the year. They know how to work as a team and what to expect from each other.

They are the Special Forces of the wildland firefighters. The Hotshot crews were first created about 60 years and it is a proven concept that works very well.

Where is this fire right now?
The management team is calling it zero-percent contained; it has burned approximately 9,000 acres. Over the last 24 hours it has not been as active as it was on Sunday when it overran those 19 firefighters. But it has been still active on the north flank. It is a large fire and will take some time for firefighters to put a fire line around it; they have about 500 firefighters working on it.

Was there any firefighting from the air on Sunday?
I don't know, but with 43 mph gusting winds, there's no way that any aircraft could have worked safely in those conditions. If they could make a water or retardant drop, the wind gusts would have blown it horizontally. So that would have been totally ineffective.

When you don't have extreme weather, aircraft supporting firefighters on the ground can be pretty effective. Aircraft cannot put out the fire, but they can slow it down and enable firefighters to work the edge and put it out. If you have both working in concert on the ground and the air, it can be very effective.  

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