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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
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Arizona Sued for Fatal Yarnell Hill Fire

PHOENIX (CN) - More than 160 property owners sued Arizona and its Forestry Division, claiming the state mismanaged the Yarnell Hill Fire, which destroyed homes and businesses and killed 19 elite firefighters last summer.

Lead plaintiff Gordon Acri et al. sued Arizona and its Forestry Division on Monday in Maricopa County Court.

According to the 93-page lawsuit, the state and its agency "failed miserably" in trying to "contain, manage, and suppress" the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters. The one man who survived had been sent to a lookout spot. It was the worst wildfire death toll of firefighters since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire, which killed 29.

The Arizona State Forestry Division "unthinkingly and incompetently reacted to events. It failed to devise and implement any coherent plan to protect the firefighters assigned to it or to protect Yarnell's people and homes," the complaint says.

The property owners claim that when the lightning-sparked fire was still small, the agency "took no measures to contain or suppress it."

It "failed to use its ground and aerial resources to contain and suppress the Yarnell Hill Fire, failed to summon additional resources, and actually sent away key ground and aerial resources under the unfounded belief that the Yarnell Hill Fire was dying out," the complaint states.

The plaintiffs claim that "an active plan of using firebreaks, burn-outs, ground crews and ground equipment, and vigorous aerial retardant and water drops could have protected all of the firefighters and safeguarded Yarnell. But the Arizona State Forestry Division floundered, adopting a strategy of uncoordinated reaction instead of planned action."

The lawsuit commends the Granite Mountain Hotshots for their "unselfish, exemplary, and courageous performance."

On June 30, 2013, when the fire began accelerating toward Yarnell, "the Arizona State Forestry Division failed to maintain communications links with its scattered units, including with the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, and consistently failed to inform and warn the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew about the Yarnell Hill Fire's strength, speed, and direction of advance," the lawsuit states.

"If the Arizona State Forestry Division had competently managed, contained, and suppressed the Yarnell Hill Fire, no member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew would have died - and Yarnell and its people would have escaped devastation."

Nineteen members of the 20-person crew were killed on June 30 after attempting to deploy fire shelters when the fire changed directions. The sole survivor was rescued by another hotshot crew.

The fire burned about 8,400 acres between June 28 and July 10, destroying 127 buildings in Yarnell, and three buildings in neighboring Peeples Valley.

In December, the Industrial Commission of Arizona ordered the state to pay a $559,000 fine after finding the Forestry Division responsible for the deaths of the firefighters.

A movie about the firefighters is slated to be directed by "Crazy Heart" director Scott Cooper.

The property owners seek damages for property loss and emotional distress, and an injunction ordering the state to provide timely notice to residents of wildfires, and specific equipment and training to firefighters. They also seek an injunction ordering that all hot shot members receive full firefighter benefits.

The property owners are represented by Craig Knapp of Knapp & Roberts in Scottsdale.

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