Editor's note -- This editorial was published in The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho following a probe by investigative reporters working on a story about the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire in Colorado. The ties to Idaho sparked the story.
Dec. 15--This can never happen again.
It became our mantra through the summer and fall as we watched the West burn, as we witnessed lives lost and as we combed through the ashes of the South Canyon Fire, 20 years later.
We started this project as a simple anniversary story. We were turning the corner into 2014, 20 years since 14 wildland firefighters died in Colorado on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994. We knew there were Idaho connections to that fire, and out of respect for those Idaho firefighters who lost loved ones and for all who died, we wanted to retrace steps and examine the lessons learned. We wanted to show how firefighting was changed by that tragedy.
Then the unthinkable happened.
On June 30, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
That's when we realized that not enough had changed since the South Canyon Fire. We realized that politics, economics and psychology were as much a factor in the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona as they had been 20 years ago in Colorado.
We were angry. As some of the largest wildfires in the nation burned nearby, as Gov. Otter declared Idaho a disaster area while the flames spread, we felt a sense of urgency to protect our own.
This can never happen again, we said. We spent the next six months talking to experts, reading reports and examining the corners where bureaucracy and firefighting meet. We sent a team of two reporters, a photographer and a videographer to Colorado with Josh Brinkley, the brother of Levi Brinkley, who died on Storm King Mountain. They followed the path of the fire that day and sat next to the memorials for the felled firefighters.
Three of our team members then went to Arizona, and two hiked to a ridge overlooking the site of the Yarnell Hill Fire, a site closed to the public. They were led on the hike by Wade Ward, public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department, and Dave Turbyfill, whose only son, Travis, was killed on that hill with his fellow hotshots.
They went to McCall to visit the Salmon Breaks -- one of the most dangerous landscapes in the country for fighting fires. They asked, "Could it happen here?" and "How can we keep it from happening here?" Or anywhere. This can never happen again.
For months, we worked to find the cracks in the system and searched for solutions.
What you'll read in this three-day series is our attempt to make a difference -- to help protect all the men and women who risk their lives each year fighting wildfires.
We ultimately discovered six key factors:
1. The Witching Hour. About 4 p.m., 15 smokejumpers died in the Mann Gulch Fire in Montana on Aug. 5, 1949. About 4 p.m., 14 firefighters died on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado on July 6, 1994. About 4 p.m., 19 hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on June 30 of this year. It's the late afternoon when winds pick up, when wildfires blow up and when firefighters are exhausted after working all day. It's the time when the day is hottest and driest. All these factors come together, and that's when people die.
2. The politics of the investigation. Out of fear of ruining careers, speaking poorly of the dead or being sued, wildfire investigation reports are censored. Things are left out and details obscured. And future lives are lost because of it.
3. The politics of who lives nearby. In theory, a single-wide trailer should be as important to save as a multi-million dollar second home, but even this summer we saw residents in the small community of Atlanta, Idaho, lining up with hoses while resources were deployed without reservation to the fires outside of Ketchum and Sun Valley. There should be a sense of urgency to protect anyone's home, but it's troubling to see deployment of resources -- even subconsciously -- based on who is living there.