Originally published Friday, April 29, 2016 at 06:02a.m.

For Tom Ashcraft, walking in the fateful steps that his son Andrew and the other fallen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew took nearly three years ago served as a turning point in the healing process.

Ashcraft and a number of other family members of the 19 Hotshots who died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013 have participated in the Arizona Forestry Division’s efforts toward a “staff ride” on the fire.

Not really a “ride” at all, the Forestry Division’s staff ride is an all-day hike and multi-stop exercise intended to put participants in the place of the people fighting the fire, and ultimately, to serve as a learning tool.

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The Yarnell Hill wildfire rages behind a command-center site on June 30, 2013.

Among the top goals of a process: Better decisions during future wildfires.

State works toward compliance with Hotshot lawsuit settlement

By CINDY BARKS

The Daily Courier

cbarks@prescottaz...

PRESCOTT – When the State of Arizona and 12 families of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots settled a wrongful death lawsuit in June 2015, the Arizona State Forestry Division agreed to do nine things.

Now, about 10 months later, a number of those points have been accomplished, and others are in the works, say officials with the State Forestry Division.

First on the list was a promise to conduct an eight-hour question-and-answer session with the Hotshot families to “review data and information and to answer questions posed by the families and their consultants/experts.”

Other points included the creation of “lessons learned” and “staff ride” documents to help prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future, as well as a number of steps toward improved training, technology, communications, and instruction on estate planning and family care plans.

To date, family members appear mixed on the results of the settlement agreement.

While Deborah Pfingston, mother of fallen Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft, says the question-and-answer session and the staff ride exercise were helpful, she points out that some families had concerns about the expected outcome.

“Some families chose not to come,” Pfingston said of the question-and-answer session, which took place in Phoenix on Feb. 5, 2016.

For some, concerns centered on the level of participation among the wildland officials who were onsite at the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013.

Linda Caldwell, the mother of fallen Hotshot Robert Caldwell, said that while she participated in the settlement process early on, she decided not to take part in the question-and-answer session.

“I got frustrated with it, because the people who know the answers weren’t going to be there,” Caldwell said, maintaining that the session appeared to be “lip service,” without the participation of key local officials who were in charge the day of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Pfingston also mentioned the absence of some of the key local wildland officials who decided not to participate. “That was a little frustrating,” she said.

Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney pointed out, though, that many of the involved officials did attend, including former State Forester Scott Hunt and incident commander Roy Hall and Todd Abel of Central Yavapai Fire District. “I invited my folks, and people who don’t work for me,” Whitney said. “Folks voluntarily wanted to come.”

In all, Whitney said about 30 people attended the meeting, including representatives of about eight families. He pointed out that those involved had been advised early on not to talk about the Yarnell Hill tragedy, because of the threat of litigation.

“That frustrated the families,” Whitney said. “That caused the families to bring the suit.” The question-and-answer session was an attempt to get beyond that constraint, he said.

Some family members also objected to the requirement that questions be submitted in advance, and Pfingston said that resulted in some answers appearing to be rehearsed. But, she said, that was a part of the settlement agreement, and the fire officials allowed for follow-up questions from the families, and were “very open, and they answered our questions.”

She especially commended Whitney for participating, and Gov. Doug Ducey for his part in bringing about the session. Those two state officials, along with the families’ attorneys Patrick McGroder and Shannon Clark, “stood together to allow mediation, allow some closure,” Pfingston said.

Overall, Pfingston said the session helped to clear up some of the families’ questions about air support and how things were requested. “We were able to meet with the head of the dispatch center, and he was wonderful,” she said.

Still, she said, “I think they held their line. I do believe there are some that are still holding information, because of the ramifications.”

Specifically, she said, the officials stood behind the Serious Accident Investigation Report, which she said was “extremely flawed, and full of holes.”

While families hoped for a “golden egg” of truth about why the Hotshots left a seemingly safe blackened area and ventured down an unprotected route, she said, they didn’t get that answer. “Do I believe at some point the truth will come out? Absolutely,” she said. Meanwhile, she expressed hope that the lessons learned from the fire would help to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

Along with the nine points, the settlement also involved the payment of $50,000 in compensation to each of the 12 families that sued. At the press conference announcing the settlement, the Ashcraft family and the William Warneke family pledged to dedicate the entire compensation award to a foundation devoted to improving the safety of wildland firefighters. Pfingston said this week that non-profit effort, the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, is underway, and will work on research, education, and family support.

Whitney pointed out that the question-and-answer session was intended to be conducted “after all litigation is concluded, including appeals.”

While noting this past week that property-loss lawsuits and one wrongful death appeal are still pending, he said the Forestry Division determined, “It’s too important not to do this now.”

Although noting that some unanswered questions still remain, Ashcraft said this week that the ability to walk the Hotshots’ route and question the people who were involved that Sunday in 2013 was helpful and enlightening.

“I’m very, very thankful I went,” he said of the April 4-5 staff ride for the families. “It was a turning point in my own healing process.”

A major take-away for Ashcraft was his ability to talk face-to-face with the air-attack crew members who were unable to dump a load of retardant on the Hotshots – a move that Ashcraft and others have maintained could have saved them.

Ashcraft says he had long felt resentment on that point. But after seeing the terrain, and hearing from the pilots about the extreme wind conditions that day, he said he was better able to understand the actions that took place.

“I heard what specific challenges they were facing – weather, wind, and information, which was sporadic,” Ashcraft said. “With the wind pushing into that box canyon, (the retardant) probably would have never reached the ground.”

Arizona State Forester Jeff Whitney points out that the staff ride process has been underway for months, and is expected to wrap up before the three-year mark of the Granite Mountain Hotshot tragedy (June 30, 2016).

Creation of a staff ride was a requirement of the Hotshot lawsuit settlement that was reached nearly a year ago (June 29, 2015).

The process also is integral to wildland firefighting, and was among the recommendations of the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation that came out in September 2013.

As Whitney explains it, a staff ride is a multi-phase process that has its roots in the military. First comes a preliminary study of the incident or fire, then an extensive field study of the actual sites where the fire occurred, and finally, an opportunity to integrate the lessons learned from the fire into future firefighting efforts.

The draft staff ride document from April 2016 lists five goals. First among them: “Create a memorable learning experience that helps participants make better decisions supported by the application of recent and relevant history.”

For Whitney, who in 1990 was on the team battling the Payson-area Dude Fire during which six firefighters died, the “lessons-learned” aspect is crucial.

Twenty-three years later, Whitney heard the news about the Granite Mountain Hotshots (just weeks after he had retired from a 40-year career in wildland firefighting, management, and administration), and he says he was frustrated and heartbroken to hear of the loss.

“How can we prevent this from happening?” he said. “It’s important work.”

Whitney came out of retirement in January 2015 to accept Gov. Doug Ducey’s appointment as director of the Arizona State Forestry Division. He was a part of the mediation that culminated with the June 2015 settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit that family members brought against the state.

He stresses that the staff ride is not intended to be an investigation into “what went wrong?” Rather, he said, the exercise puts wildland experts into the place of those who made the decisions during the fire.

“It’s important that we get some clarity around what occurred there,” Whitney said. “And it’s important that we try to do everything we possibly can to equip our current and future fire managers with more information, so they’re better able to do situation awareness and opportunity recognition.”

The Yarnell Hill staff ride’s field study phase continued this week, when about 40 experts – Hotshot superintendents, engine captains, duty officers – met in Yarnell to go through the same drill the families had earlier done.

The 47-page April 2016 Yarnell Hill Staff Ride draft included a step-by-step schedule for the team. Among the defined stops: the Yarnell Fire Station; movement to the ridge top on Yarnell Hill; a “sense-making and communication” session at the top of the ridge; descending to the saddle, defined as “closing the window;” and the fatality site, which the document refers to as “realized ultimate reality.”

Along with background about the crew, the draft staff ride document includes situational information, and the tactical decisions that were made.

The document notes that participants in the exercise would be “tracing the route and decision-making of the (Granite Mountain Hotshots) and their colleagues as they faced a rapidly changing fire environment in an effort to manage the Yarnell Hill Fire.”

Whitney said the family involvement in the Yarnell Hill staff ride was somewhat unique, because of its place in the settlement agreement.

The 40 experts who participated this week came various agencies all over the country. Their feedback will go into the creation of the final staff ride document.

Whitney foresees the Yarnell Hill Fire being a learning tool for years to come, with as many as four staff rides a year conducted at the site. (He said access to the site is still being worked out).

Noting that staff rides usually take eight to 10 years to complete, Whitney said the Yarnell Hill exercise is well ahead of the norm.

“We’re going to have this done in three years,” he said. I’m extremely pleased with the progress to date. It redeems the commitment I made.”