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Expert investigators to study decision-making role in deaths of Arizona firefighters

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Fire crews battling a wildfire should identify escape routes and safe zones. They should pay close attention to the weather forecast. And they should post lookouts.

The federal government issued those standards and others nearly two decades ago after a wildfire tragedy in Colorado. On Tuesday, investigators from around the United States arrived in Arizona to examine whether 19 crack firefighters who perished over the weekend heeded those rules or ignored them and paid with their lives.

In the nation's biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for a team of Hotshots.

The tragedy raised questions of whether the crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference at all in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.

In 1994, 14 firefighters died on Colorado's Storm King Mountain, and investigators afterward found numerous errors in the way the blaze was fought. The U.S. Forest Service revised its firefighting policies.

“The reforms after Storm King were collectively intended to prevent that from happening again, which was mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew,” said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado.

“There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting.”

Those changes included policies that say no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather.

“If you don't have those things in place, it's not advisable to deploy a team in the first place, because you can't guarantee their safety,” Burton said.

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