By Katherine Locke
PRESCOTT, Arizona (Reuters) - There is no evidence of negligence or reckless behavior in the deaths of 19 elite firefighters who were battling a raging inferno in central Arizona in June, but communications problems led to confusion about their location, an investigative report released on Saturday concluded.
The members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were engulfed by wind-whipped flames on the third day of a lightning-sparked blaze that destroyed scores of homes and charred 8,400 acres in and around the tiny town of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix. There was one survivor.
The June 30 disaster marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire since 1933, when more than two dozen firefighters were killed battling the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles.
"Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations," the report said. "The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol."
The 116-page "Serious Accident Investigation Report into the Yarnell Hill Fire" also found that the judgments and decisions of those managing the fire were reasonable.
But it said there was a 30-minute gap, just before the firefighters were killed, when they were not in communication. The investigators said they did not know why the firefighters fell silent though they noted the crew was moving at the time.
"I don't know if they did not have adequate radio communications," said Scott Hunt, Arizona State forester and one of the investigative team. "They had communicated with aircraft and so far as we know their radios were working."
Jim Karels, the leader of the investigative team said such gaps were not uncommon. Investigators could not know whether it contributed to the firefighters' deaths, he said.
"That's something that's hard and we can't determine," he said.
The report's executive summary said communications problems meant that few people understood the movements of the firefighters when they left an area that had already been burned to head toward a ranch.
"The Team believes this is due to brief, informal, and vague radio transmissions and talk-arounds that can occur during wildland fire communications," the report said.
As a result, the fire operations thought the crew was still near the top of a ridge when the search and rescue started, it said. Investigators said they did not know why the crew decided to move.
Some radios were not programmed with appropriate tone guards, the report said, though the crew developed ways around the problem.
Authorities said the 19 were out carving a fire break with hand tools on one flank of the blaze when a burst of gale-force winds from an approaching thunderstorm abruptly turned the flames back in their direction.
The men, most of them in their 20s, apparently were overtaken in a matter of seconds.
Members of the team quickly deployed the cocoon-like protective shells they carry in a last-ditch bid to take cover, but some never even made it into the foil-coated capsules.
Only one member of the 20-man squad survived - a firefighter who was acting as lookout and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew at the time.
David Turbyfill, whose son Travis died in the fire, said the reports' recommendations did not address improvements to fire-shelter technology.
"This fire shows the absolute catastrophic failure of equipment," Turbyfill said at a news conference where the report was officially released on Saturday.
Materials are available that would better protect firefighters, he said. The shelters they carry now took 13 years to develop.
"Are you to wait another 13 years or are we going to do something sooner?" Turbyfill asked. "You say it's a last resort. There isn't a football player that goes on the field without pads and a helmet."
The report did recommend that the state of Arizona ask for a review of current technology that could increase tracking and communications, and could include GPS units and weather applications.
It also recommended that Arizona review its approach to mitigating the threat of wildfire, and look at the statewide communications plan.
The report said the firefighters had been watching the fire burn all day but did not anticipate the significant change in its behavior.
"These changes included a doubling of fire intensity and flame lengths, a second 90-degree directional change, and a dramatically accelerated rate of speed," it said.
Aircraft were not available for a limited period because of the bad weather and the need to refuel, the report said.
The Hotshots were a fully qualified, staffed and trained crew, the report said. They met training and work/rest guidelines and followed all standards and guidelines for hotshot crew operations.
The Arizona State Forestry Division commissioned the investigation to examine the decisions and factors that led to the deaths.
All the men were specially trained to tackle fires in rugged, backcountry areas at close range, armed with little more than shovels, pick-axes and chainsaws. The Prescott team was one of only 108 such units around the country.
The disaster shocked the firefighters' hometown of Prescott, a town of some 40,000 residents some 100 miles northwest of Phoenix. The town was once the capital of the Arizona territory during the 1860s.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor and Katherine Locke; Writing by Noreen O'Donnell; Editing by Greg McCune, Gunna Dickson and Mohammad Zargham)