Families, Arizona settle suit in deaths of 19 firefighters

AP News
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Posted: Jun 29, 2015 8:21 PM
Families, Arizona settle suit in deaths of 19 firefighters

PHOENIX (AP) — The state of Arizona settled a lawsuit Monday brought by a dozen families who lost loved ones when a Hotshot firefighting crew was overcome by a wildfire near the small community of Yarnell.

The settlement announced by state Attorney General Mark Brnovich will pay the families $50,000 each. Some vowed to donate the money to a new wildland firefighter safety foundation.

A second part of the agreement ends a state Forestry Division appeal of nearly $560,000 in fines issued by Arizona's workplace safety agency, known as ADOSH.

The state agreed to enhance safety training for wildland fire crews and a host of other changes in how it oversees fires and crews. It also will pay another seven families $10,000 each.

Family members say they didn't file the suit for the money but to protect future firefighters.

"It was a fight that the families couldn't fight alone, the forester couldn't fight alone, ADOSH couldn't fight alone," said Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of firefighter Andrew Ashcraft. "It had to take all of us coming together in a global resolution to even start talking about what we can do to prevent these things from happening again."

The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died on June 30, 2013, while fighting a fire about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix after a thunderstorm caused a wind shift.

The crew members had been in a relatively safe position on a ridge top. For an unknown reason and without notifying anyone, they moved down the mountainside through an unburned area where they were trapped by a wall of flames when winds shifted the fire in their direction.

State workplace safety regulators blamed the largest loss of wildland firefighters since 1933 on the state Forestry Division, saying they knowingly put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled crews out earlier.

All but one member of the crew died. The ADOSH investigation found that state fire officials lacked key personnel to battle the Yarnell Hill Fire at critical times. An earlier investigation commissioned by the Forestry Division, which found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures.

The Forestry Division contested the fines, saying they were "not supported by substantial evidence." The state didn't admit wrongdoing in reaching the settlement.

Brnovich said the state had an obligation to settle the lawsuit and to work to prevent future tragedies.

"As a state, we don't measure success in wins and losses," he said. "We measure our success in whether justice has been done by the victims."

The settlement came a day before the second anniversary of the deaths of the Prescott, Arizona-based firefighting crew. The land where the crew lost their lives will be auctioned off Tuesday and the state Parks Department hopes to be the winning bidder and turn the 320-acre site outside Yarnell into a memorial park.

Late Tuesday afternoon, a formal event is planned at the Yavapai County courthouse in Prescott to commemorate the anniversary.

Andrew Ashcraft's mother, Deborah Pfingston, said the settlement and the Forestry Division's commitment of a slew of changes is a good start.

"It will never end in my mind or my heart, but it is a start that we will get the change. After two years we feel we are confident with the truth," Pfingston said. "We fully believe that the changes that the forester will do in incident command will save others' lives."