SHOW LOW, Ariz. - The final accident report on a shelter deployment during 2016's Cedar Fire found multiple breakdowns that led to a hot shot crew being forced to deploy their fire shelters.
The Navajo Hot Shots were caught on the southwestern edge of the fire, which burned southwest of Show Low, when the fire developed into what's known as a "fire whirl." The report said a fire whirl is like a small tornado and can have the same damaging effects.
The hot shots were cut off from their planned escape route and deployed their fire shelters. According to the report, one hot shot froze in the face of the fire, saying it was "like watching a movie." The leader of the hot shot team made sure he got in his fire shelter.
All the hot shots survived with minor injuries.
But the report shows failures in communication the day of the burnover and in the days leading up to it.
The accident investigation team found fire officials with the Type 1 team, the team that's called in to manage the most serious fires, didn't think it was worth the potential danger of sending firefighters to the southwestern edge. But once the Type 1 team relinquished control of the fire, the Fort Apache Agency sent firefighters to that edge of the fire.
The Fort Apache Agency is a Bureau of Indian Affairs agency that manages wildfires on the Apache Indian Reservation.
As the fire wound down and the management teams transitioned to a lower level, the report also showed the Fort Apache Agency demobilized almost all of its firefighters.
By the time the Type 4 team took over, shortly before the hot shots deployed their shelters, the report said the incident commander spent his first day trying to get more resources to fight the fire.
The Fort Apache Agency said Monday it's routine to dismiss firefighters during a transition like that, and the Type 4 commander simply wanted more resources.
The report also found deficiencies in the Fort Apache Agency's planning.
The agency was without a fire management officer for five years. The investigation found the position was only filled 18 months before the Cedar Fire.
Because of this, the agency did not have a fire management plan completed. The investigation also found the Fort Apache Agency did not have a critical incident response plan, which would direct the agency how to respond to events like a shelter deployment.
The Fort Apache Agency said Monday it has since completed the fire management plan and is still in the process of the completing the critical incident response plan.
The investigation also found deficiencies in how fire weather was reported to fire crews.
Although multiple people reported small dust devils and fire whirls in the fire area, the investigation found that information is not routinely brought up in fire briefings. In the case of the Cedar Fire, investigators found those sightings did not lead to any discussions about changing the way the fire was being fought.
The Fort Apache Agency said it's since held specific classes dealing with fire whirls.
The report recommended changes nationwide in how that information is used in fire briefings.
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