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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Although most of the state remains in moderate drought, with several severe pockets in southern and western Utah, experts predict that this wildfire season will be a "normal" one for the state, Thursday, May 22, 2014.
Utah firefighters have learned lessons after tragic 2013 Arizona wildfire
Safety » Among the lessons is prioritizing lives over property.
First Published Jun 07 2014 09:57 pm • Last Updated Jun 09 2014 10:41 am

As wildfire crews battle smoke and flames this summer, they have a recent reminder of what mistakes on the ground and back at headquarters can cost.

The Yarnell Hill fire, which took the lives of 19 firefighters last year in Arizona, has Utah’s fire defenders talking about they can learn from the tragedy.

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The need for clear communication and always putting people before property were topics during the lead-up this summer’s wildfire season, which officially started June 1. Officials also emphasized the danger of falling into complacency.

"[Yarnell Hill is] definitely in the front of our minds," said Jessica Osborne, a six-year firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.

On June 30, 2013, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped as a fierce thunderstorm changed the direction of the flames they were battling near the small community of Yarnell, Ariz.

A commission that oversees workplace safety blamed state fire officials for knowingly putting protection of property ahead of safety and said the crew should have been pulled out earlier.

Marshall Krotenberg, the safety agency’s lead investigator, told commissioners that senior fire managers had already determined that the town was indefensible, and that fire managers should have removed firefighters an hour before the thunderstorm arrived. Everyone knew the storm was anticipated, but "there was no plan to move people out of the way," he said.

The commission’s chairman, David Parker, said he believed the fire management team on site did everything in its power to defend the community and provide for the safety of people. "It’s not the intention of the people that (is) in question, it’s that employees remained exposed after they no longer should be exposed," Parker said.

The commission’s findings reverberated throughout the wildfire community, on a nationwide scale. Cheryl Probert, a deputy forest supervisor, mentioned at a press event last month that tragedies like Yarnell Hill serve as a reminder that keeping people safe sometimes means letting property burn.

A new batch of firefighters will soon wrap up their training, and the U.S. Forest Service in Utah has been drilling into them that their lives and the safety of the people around them is not worth a building.

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The Forest Service has been hitting that same message hard at every pre-season meeting with fire officials around the state.

"[With tragedy like Yarnell] does come that focus, and we are hypersensitive to that," said Loyal Clark, a Forest Service spokeswoman.

During a week-long training session last month, one of the Yarnell Hill investigators shared the probe’s findings with Utah officials and what they can take away from that.

Not falling into complacency was one lesson, said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The 19 Hotshots were trained, experienced professionals, but even they got into trouble. Not that the Hotshots became complacent, Curry added, but their deaths underscore that no one is immune to danger.

Mike Stoutsenberger, a Forest Service firefighter, echoed that lesson at last month’s press event. Standing by his fire truck, Stoutsenberger explained how they understand that risk is part of the job, but it’s important that they not to lose focus on their safety — even though it gets easier to lose that focus toward the end of the season as fire after fire wears them down.

Another takeaway was clear communication, as well as the importance of making clear decisions and having a solid plan in any case, Curry said.

"These are not new things, but they are things to re-emphasize," he said.

Also in the wake of Yarnell Hill, the National Association of State Foresters asked the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to review what technology is available to track resources in real-time, analyze the "human factors" in fire fighting, and how they use air suppression, according to a BLM report.

The BLM also bumped up their periodic review of their fire shelters to this year instead of 2015. The shelters — fire-resistant bags that firefighters can fall on the ground and throw on — can provide last-ditch protection for firefighters who can no longer outrun an inferno. The review considers new materials with which to make the shelters, as well as the current shelters’ weight and performance, among other factors.

All of those reviews are still ongoing, as far as Curry knows, and he is anxiously awaiting the results.

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