Planes called just before Ariz. wildfire deaths
Officials asked for half of the entire Western air tanker fleet; weather and availability kept planes away
By Bob Christie and Michael R. Blood
The Associated Press
PHOENIX — An Arizona wildfire was so out of control because of winds from a nearby thunderstorm that officials asked for half the available Western U.S. air tanker fleet nearly an hour before 19 members of a Hotshot crew were killed, records obtained by the Associated Press Friday show.
The records from the federal Bureau of Land Management show Arizona officials asked for six heavy air tankers at 4:08 p.m. on June 30, about 50 minutes after outflowing high winds from a nearby thunderstorm began driving the wildfire toward the small town of Yarnell.
National Weather Service officials issued a wind warning to fire managers at 3:26 p.m. that day. The firefighters radioed that they were trapped and getting into the emergency fire shelters at 4:47 p.m.
The six planes were never deployed or arrived because of the limited number of tankers in the nation's aerial firefighting fleet and the dangerous weather conditions at the time. Fire officials said even if they had been available winds were so strong they couldn't have been used to save the firefighters' lives.
But the fact that so many planes were requested provides more proof that firefighters were facing an increasingly dangerous scenario. There were only 12 heavy tankers available that day in the Western United States.
"It is significant, and it makes an exclamation point to the situation, doesn't it," said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Division of Forestry, which was managing the fire.
The agency asked for the six heavy tankers when the thunderstorm started kicking up fire activity but they didn't get them because none were available. The heavy tankers are used to lay lines of fire retardant to prevent a fire's spread and protect ground crews.
The request came nearly an hour before out-of-control flames trapped the 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshots and led to the nation's worst wildland fire tragedy since 1933.
Despite the size of the order and what the state Forestry Division says was the dire danger to the town, there was no sign crews were in immediate danger. There also wasn't any sense of urgency conveyed when the air tankers were ordered, federal officials said.
Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, described the request for six large tankers as "coincidental and not consequential" to the fate of the doomed Hotshot crew.
He said none of the dispatch records related to the request show "any expression firefighters were in trouble.
"We did not know at this level how much jeopardy the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was in," said Smurthwaite, whose agency oversees the deployment of firefighting aircraft in wildfires.
No aircraft were battling the blaze when the crew died. Three drops were made 12:30 and 1 p.m. on June 30 by large P-2V tankers capable of dropping 2,800 gallons of retardant that had been working a fire farther north in Arizona, but they went back to that assignment, Paxon said. Fire officials had earlier asked for the nation's two huge DC-10 air tankers that can drop about four times the retardant, but they were unavailable.
Only a spotter plane was in the air when the Prescott, Ariz.-based Granite Mountain Hotshots died. The state's fleet of small single-engine retardant-dropping planes was grounded in Prescott because of the weather, and no helicopters or heavy tankers were available.
Paxon said the tankers would not have been able to drop during what he described as a very large wind event anyway.
"When that fire blew up with the (thunderstorm) outflow there was no way to get any aircraft in close to the fire," he said. "Beyond the heat and the turbulence there's just really unstable air. They tell these big commercial airliners to fly around thunderstorms — well, this activity's more than a thunderstorm, the activity on a fire when you get one of these big outflow events with 40 or 50 miles an hour winds."
Paxon said they ordered the planes despite knowing they couldn't be used at the moment in hopes of building a retardant line between the fire and the town of Yarnell.
"You don't know how long a wind event's going to last — you order them — if that DC-10 is coming from Albuquerque, that's 20 minutes load time and two hours flying time," Paxon said.
Smurthwaite also said the turbulent weather was preventing some firefighting aircraft from flying and "even if six large air tankers ... were available, it's very doubtful that we could have gotten them there in time to have made any difference."
The one question Paxon couldn't answer had to do with why the Hotshot crew was still on the mountain nearly an hour after conditions became so violent that six heavy tankers were ordered.
"We don't know," he said. "That's something that the serious incident investigation team is looking into."
The crew was found about 500 yards from a ranch house they had designated as they safety zone. The 20th member of the crew was acting at a spotter and escaped unharmed when the fire roared into the area from the north.
The Associated Press obtained details about the aerial effort Friday through a public records request. The fire 60 miles fire northwest of Phoenix was triggered by lightning on June 28 and destroyed more than 100 homes before it was fully contained on Wednesday.
Blood reported from Los Angeles.