Fire historian contends confusion lingers following Yarnell tragedy

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

PHOENIX -- One year after the tragedy at Yarnell, nationally known fire historian Steve Pyne says confusion lingers.

"We're confused about how to respond to fire so we're confused about how to respond to those who may die trying to manage fire," Pyne said.

The biggest reason is because critical details remain a mystery.
 
"From the beginning there has been a big effort to control the nature of this story and the information flow, much more than other fires that I'm familiar with," he explained.
 
Pyne's familiarity with fires is unparalleled. He's written dozens of books on fighting wildfires. Inside his Valley home is an impressive library all categorized by continents, which is why no one was more curious than Pyne to read the results of the investigation.
 
"I found the report very disappointing," he said. "It really didn't answer any of the questions I wanted answered."
 
Pyne's biggest question?
 
"Why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the ridge," he said. "What combination of pushes and pulls led them to do that? No one so far has been able to determine. They obviously thought it was a reasonable thing to do."
 
A troubling point for Pyne, "There was nothing in the area that was outside norm. It was a high-intensity event, but this was not some alien visitation, nobody had ever seen this before, they had no idea it would come, they were told it was coming."
              
Going forward Pyne worries responding to wildfires like emergencies is shortsighted.
 
"That's the equivalent of putting all of your national health care money into emergency rooms and evacuations," he said. "That's not solving the problem."
 
Pyne believes we should create a national wildland firefighting policy so there is consistency in both responding as well as investigating.
 
"Maybe what we need is something like the NTSB for fire to come in," he said. "You can't let the agencies or the communities police itself. However much they try there is a structural conflict of interest."
 
In the meantime, he pledges to continue asking tough questions and to critique Yarnell in the most respectful and appropriate way possible.
 
"What actually happened? Is it something we can fix or is it something that's outside our control?  What can we learn from this?"