I chose to do my case study on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. I remembered hearing news stories about the fire, so I decided to look into it when it came up in a list of the most devastating wildfires in US history.
The wildfire was started on June 28th of 2013, with the official cause being lightning. The initial reports did not view the fire as an immediate threat, so suppression efforts were put off until the next day. Unfortunately, the circumstances were prime for massive wildfires. The area was (and had been) in extreme drought for a significant period of time (figure 1 shows the drought conditions days before the blaze), the weather was hot, and the relative humidity was low. The terrain was made up of grasses, and low shrubbery, also known for strong fires. Sometime during the blaze, a thunderstorm system with microburst ended up drastically changing wind speed and direction. This is when major tragedy struck. On June 30th, 19 firefighters from the granite mountain hotshots were killed after a sequence of miscommunication and poor planning. Their deaths made the wildfire one of the deadliest wildfires, with the most firefighter deaths in one event since 9/11.
The town was relatively unprepared, with many houses up against brush or other fuel materials. Additionally, the population was primarily elderly and low income, which could have impacted their abilities to retrofit their homes. By the time the fire was contained, over 8,000 acres had burned, and over 100 residences were damaged or destroyed. Arizona did have a disaster relief plan, which was credited with the organization of aid to the community. However, the fire was not deemed a disaster by FEMA, limiting federal funding. Media coverage surrounding the firefighters’ deaths played a large role in the recovery of the community, as public donations and help came pouring in.
Overall, a rapid change in weather conditions, drought, and bad communication turned a wildfire into a tragedy that reached national levels.
Figure 1: Drought map days before the fire https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/remembering-the-yarnell-hill-wildfire