PHOENIX — Friday marks the 10th anniversary of one of the darkest days in Arizona history: the loss of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot crew members in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
The team from the Prescott Fire Department was battling a wildfire near the tiny community of Yarnell, about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, when they were overwhelmed by flames after thunderstorms shifted the winds, trapping them in a canyon with no escape route.
The June 30, 2013, wildfire was the deadliest in Arizona history. Many changes have been made to improve firefighter safety since then, but it will always be a dangerous job.
Type 1 Commander Clay Templin’s team arrived to lead the firefight after the hotshots were lost and almost 100 homes were destroyed.
“I don’t think anything truly prepares you for getting the call where 19 of your brothers were tragically killed,” Templin, who is now retired, told KTAR News 92.3 FM recently.
How have Arizona firefighters reduced risks?
Templin said methods for fighting wildfires have improved over the past decade.
“I think for the guys on the ground, on the line, the point of the spear, I think we’re more thoughtful in the actions that get taken,” he said.
“I think we do a lot better job of communicating ‘here’s the risks, here’s the expected behaviors, expected weather.’ I think we try to set everybody up for success and mitigate risks to the extent that we can, but you’re never going to make it a situation where you’re not exposed to risk.”
State wildland firefighters added a big tech advancement to their toolbox this year, a GPS tracking system called DropBlocks.
A high-tech solution for tracking crews
Tiffany Davila with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management says these state-of-the-art satellite-based devices allow supervisors to locate crews more precisely while they’re on an incident.
That was a challenge 10 years ago after the Granite Mountain crew was initially trapped in the canyon.
“Often times our crews are deployed to fight fire in very remote locations, sometimes with little to no cellphone service, so these devices (DropBlocks) provide us another communications channel to reach them,” Davila said.
Davila says DropBlocks are being carried and tested by half of her agency’s 12 wildland fire hand crews. The agency is one of few in the country with this type of firefighter accountability system.
“After this season our crew captains will provide feedback to our agency overhead and we’ll go from there,” she said.
“If all goes successful, we will provide all of our hand crews and engine crews with these locating systems. It’s definitely the most important tool our crews will be carrying around with them on an incident.”