Communications Problems to Blame in Deaths of Nineteen Firefighters

Inadequate radio communication was to blame for the deaths of 19 Arizona firefighters in June, according to an Arizona State Forestry Division investigation.

The trouble began June 28, when a small, remote fire exploded into the deadliest blaze in 80 years. The Granite Mountain Hotshots team of 20 firefighters responded on the morning of June 30.

Nine hours later, they were surrounded by flames. All but one — the man serving as lookout — died in the blaze.

According to the 120-page report released today, the deaths may have resulted from a failure to communicate.

Unbeknownst to the other rescuers, the Granite Mountain Hotshots apparently left "the black," a safe, already-burned ridge area. At some point the fire changed course, and they became trapped in a bowl surrounded by three mountains. They had only two minutes to attempt to construct shelters before the fire overtook them.

As the 19 firefighters scrambled futilely for shelter, there was apparently an air tanker holding fire retardant, hovering above them, waiting for an update about their location.

Although much communication occurred among crews throughout the day, few people understood Granite Mountain’s intentions, movements, and location, once they left the black. The Team believes this is due to brief, informal, and vague radio transmissions and talkarounds that can occur during wildland fire communications. Based on radio conversations, Operations and other resources had concluded the Granite Mountain IHC was located in the black, near the ridge top where they had started that morning. This resulted in confusion about the crew’s actual location at the time of search and rescue.

[image via AP]