By John Dougherty
Also published August 21, 2013 in Phoenix New Times
Dave Turbyfill zooms in on a Google Earth map of a boulder-strewn box canyon just west of Yarnell, where his son and 18 other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died when they were overrun by a wall of flames on June 30.
It’s obvious he’s spent hours poring over maps as he tries to put himself in the boots of his son, Travis Turbyfill, in late-afternoon on the third day of the infamous Yarnell Hill Fire.
Not content to just look at images, Turbyfill has gone to the site where the men deployed their fire shelters as smoke enveloped them and 10-foot-high, drought-ravaged chaparral exploded into flames.
He’d hiked up through the boulder field, out of the box canyon to the ridgeline. He’d walked along the narrow two-track jeep trail that hugs the ridge. He’d wondered what the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew saw about 4 p.m. on June 30 and why it decided to leave relative safety and move down into a valley packed with unburned scrub.
On his hike, he’d looked north from his perch on the ridge, toward the community of Peeples Valley, which earlier that day was about to be engulfed by fire but was spared only when the flames reversed direction as a powerful thunderstorm churning from the northeast unleashed winds of 40-plus miles per hour.
He’d looked east, where a ranch compound with wide swaths of dirt around its perimeter beaconed. And just beyond that: the town of Yarnell, where State Route 89 bisects the former gold-mining camp and present-day retirement community.
And he’d looked south, where the jeep trail offered a tantalizingly easy path to safety down a hillside to where it joins State Route 89 as the road weaves up the mountainside.
He’d timed himself on his descent from the ridge to the site where the men died: 18 minutes. But that’s down a hillside burned bare of the tangle of manzanita, scrub oak, and thickets that would have slowed down the hotshots.
“I still try to envision if I was with them. Would I have joined with them and have done what they did?” he says. “I would have to say, to know what I know with the information we have at hand, I think I would have been the 20th guy with them going down off the ridgeline.”
Turbyfill, 48, knows that may have been a rational decision at the time the crew began its descent into the box canyon turned into a horrible disaster.
His engineering background and the logical analysis needed to run his metal-fabrication business requires precision. He needs a series of answers to carefully thought-out questions before a plausible conclusion can be reached. Unfortunately, he says, he’s having a hard time getting much from the Prescott Fire Department and the state Forestry Division.
Indeed, 48 days after his 26-year-old son was killed, he’s left with more questions than answers.
But he’s certain about one brutal fact: The fire that took his son and the rest of the crew could have been controlled — easily.
“It looked to be a very manageable fire, in terms of its size,” Turbyfill says. “So if they had the ability to put that fire out or had made an aggressive enough attempt to put that fire out, then the Granite Mountain Hotshots wouldn’t have been deployed, and my son and the rest of that crew would have been alive today.”
The state didn’t hit the fire hard, he argues. In fact, the state didn’t deploy any resources on the late afternoon of Friday, June 28, when lightning started the fire along a ridgeline west of Yarnell and north of Congress. On Saturday, it sent a couple of prison crews to cut a fire line.
But the efforts proved ineffective. And the state dispatched a few slurry tankers, but they were insufficient put out the fire. By late Saturday evening, the fire had gone from a few acres to hundreds of acres and was threatening Yarnell and Peeples Valley.
Turbyfill is suspicious that private contractors dominating the wildfire business don’t want to knock down fires too fast and, therefore, miss out on big paydays.
“I see it as a big money-making venture for private contractors,” he says.
Such contracters provide much of the equipment used to fight wildfires, he notes — from aircraft that dump slurry and helicopters that drop “Bambi Buckets” of water to bulldozers that help cut fire lines to food caterers with tractor-trailer-equipped mobile kitchens to fire mangers and hand crews, such as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, reimbursed at $39-an-hour per man.
“You can’t really put the fire out when it’s five acres,” he believes. “Because if it has the potential of being five days or even three days, [fire managers] can bring in an incident-command team from around the region, hotshots, or other [firefighting] crews, engine crews” so money can be made.
“[They] subcontract everything and generate this big industry,” Turbyfill asserts.
Most of the money, he says, pointing to a reported $5.45 million spent suppressing the Yarnell Hill Fire, went to cover the costs of aircraft, management, and logistical support.
“The least amount of money they spend is on the hand crews,” says Turbyfill, who worked as a volunteer firefighter where he lives in Groom Creek, a few miles south of Prescott. The vast majority of the slain hotshots were making between $12 and $15 a hour, with no benefits.
Turbyfill is particularly concerned about why the Granite Mountain crew does not appear to have had ready access to portable GPS transponders that would have provided fire managers with up-to-the-minute information about the crew’s location.
“[Incident commanders] were unable to identify where the crew was when they were calling for help,” Turbyfill says. “And the smoke was so heavy [that those in aircraft] couldn’t see. So there was no retardant dropped and no water dropped because they couldn’t identify the position where they were at.”
Even before such a desperate measure, GPS transponders could have provided incident commanders with precise information on the crew’s location as it moved off the ridgeline and into a canyon where the fire no longer was visible to the hotshots.
If an incident commander overseeing firefighter operations knew the exact location of the Granite Mountain crew at the same time the commander observed that the fire activity was rapidly escalating and heading in the crew’s direction, a warning could have been sent to the crew to retreat back to safety, Turbyfill says.
Instead, the fire raced across the landscape at about 12 miles per hour, reaching — apparently with no warning — the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who were heading directly into it. Though their spotter said they were aware that the fire had reversed direction, there’s no information to suggest that they knew how fast it was moving.
Turbyfill talked to the residents of the ranch house who had cleared vegetation on the structure’s perimeter and who were home when fired engulfed the chaparral surrounding the home. The fire charged at the home so fast that the couple barely had time to shelter their animals and get back inside, Turbyfill says.
And as the fire encircled the ranch, it also turned to the west and roared up the canyon, trapping the Granite Mountain Hotshots who had just descended off the ridge.
“There weren’t very many minutes from the time they indicated that their escape route was cut off to when [the hotshots] were deploying shelters,” Turbyfill says. “They didn’t have the opportunity to retreat.”
Turbyfill has no intention of silently slipping away in the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill tragedy. “I want us to figure out a better way to fight fires,” he says. “I want to fight fires sooner, rather than later.”
He’s busy researching ways to build better fire shelters so that men and women on fire lines have a better chance of surviving an inferno.
But, ultimately, the only thing that is going to save lives in the future, he says, is for far-reaching changes to occur in how the country addresses wildfires:
“I think the reason these guys died — and the reason other guys died [working] fires — is because we make improper decisions well in advance of the fire operation itself.”