Arizona agency seeks fine in firefighters' deaths

The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the City of Prescott in Arizona. The elite team of 19 firemen were killed on Sunday in one of deadliest U.S. firefighting disasters in decades as flames raced

City of Prescott/Reuters /Landov

The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the City of Prescott in Arizona. The elite team of 19 firemen were killed in one of deadliest U.S. firefighting disasters in decades as flames raced through dry brush and grass in central Arizona, destroying scores of homes and forcing the evacuation of two towns.

Arizona's workplace safety agency recommended Wednesday that the state Forestry Division pay a nearly $560,000 fine in the deaths of 19 firefighters, saying officials placed the protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland ahead of firefighter safety. The firefighters included several with Southern California roots.

The proposed citations from the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health said forestry officials managing the Yarnell Hill Fire northwest of Phoenix also failed to promptly remove downwind crews when suppression became ineffective, placing hundreds of firefighters at risk for smoke inhalation, burns and death.

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All but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died June 30 when they became trapped in a brush-choked bowl near Yarnell. The Arizona State Forestry Division oversaw the fight against the blaze on state land.

The safety agency presented the proposals to the state Industrial Commission at a meeting in Phoenix. The commission has the final say on whether the fines are imposed.

Commissioners could decide to accept the proposals as presented, ask for more information or make changes, said Abbie Fink, a spokeswoman for the safety agency.

"That's sort of the unknown, what the vote and outcome will be," she said.

Carrie Dennett, a spokeswoman for the Forestry Division, said the agency fully cooperated with the investigation and would not comment on it until after the commission votes.

The review by ADOSH occurred simultaneously but separately from a three-month investigation by national experts into the circumstances surrounding the deaths. That report found lapses in communication from the crew in the hour before the firefighters died. It also found proper procedure was followed but did not say whether the tragedy was avoidable.

The 19 members of the crew employed by the city of Prescott had been in a relatively safe position on a ridge top. For some unknown reason and without notifying anyone, they moved down the mountainside through an unburned area. The men found themselves trapped by a wall of flames when winds shifted the fire in their direction.

They deployed their emergency shelters but perished in the scorching heat. The surviving crew member had been the lookout.

The ADOSH investigation found that the city of Prescott was in compliance with standards for training and crew rest.

The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and burned 13 square miles before it was fully contained on July 10.

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