- Associated Press - Sunday, September 29, 2013

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Shortly before 19 elite firefighters perished in a raging Arizona wildfire, commanders thought the crew was in a safe place. No one had heard from the Granite Mountain Hotshots for 33 minutes. The crew didn’t contact commanders, and commanders didn’t radio them.

Then it was too late.

A three-month investigation into the June 30 deaths released Saturday did not determine if the deaths were avoidable while outlining a series of missteps by the crew and commanders and revealing the more than half-hour of radio silence that occurred just before the firefighters were overwhelmed by flames.

It’s not certain why the crew left what was believed to be a safe spot on a ridge that the fire previously had burned and, apparently seeking another safe location, unknowingly walked to their deaths in a basin thick with dry brush. At the time they died, an air tanker was circling overhead, confused about their location.

“There is much that cannot be known about the crew’s decisions and actions” because of the gap in communications, the report concluded.

The 120-page report by a team of local, state and federal fire experts pointed to repeated problems with radios and contact with the crew. At one point, a pilot wanted to check on the firefighters after hearing radio traffic that they might be on the move, but commanders believed at that time the crew was positioned safely.

Ted Putnam, a former investigator for the U.S. Forest Service, said the report didn’t go far enough to dissect the decisions made by the firefighters. When the crew members went silent and did not notify anyone they were changing locations, “there’s an active failure there,” he said.

At a news conference in Prescott, where the fallen firefighters lived, Shari Turbyfill implored officials to draw stronger conclusions about why her stepson and his fellow firefighters died and to recommend immediate changes.

“I don’t want another family to deal with this,” she said.

Her husband, David, said the emergency fire shelter in which his 27-year-old son, Travis, died had not been improved in 13 years.

“Policies, as they may be, need to change,” he said.

Despite identifying numerous problems, the report found that proper procedure was followed in the worst firefighting incident since Sept. 11, 2001. Investigators suggested that Arizona possibly should update its guidelines and look into better tracking technology.

All but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew died while protecting the small former gold rush town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, from an erratic, lightning-sparked fire. Hotshots are elite back-country firefighters who hike deep into the brush to fight blazes.

Investigators described what became a chaotic day in which a fire that two days earlier caused little concern bloomed into an inferno that incinerated pine, juniper and scrub oak in an area that hadn’t experienced a significant wildfire in nearly a half-century.

The day went according to routine in the boulder-strewn mountains until the wind shifted around 4 p.m., pushing a wall of fire that had been receding from the firefighters all day back toward them. The report suggested the crew was blindsided when the fire changed direction and surged in intensity and speed.

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