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Yarnell fire report stirs deep emotions

9:11 AM, Sep 30, 2013   |    comments
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A second government report examining the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 Prescott hotshots, should be completed by year's end, but the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health is offering no insight as to what its report might reveal.

"This is still an ongoing investigation: ADOSH is unable to comment on ongoing investigations, which can take as long as six months to complete," agency spokeswoman Rachel Brockway said in a statement issued Friday.

The agency is responsible for investigating workplace injuries to determine whether safety rules and regulations were violated. It can issue citations to employers whose safety violations result in worker injuries or deaths. Fines range up to $7,000.

Information from the Yarnell Hill Fire inquiry will be released to the public after an investigation is closed or a citation is issued, Brockway said.

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health probe will follow the Arizona State Forestry Division's report issued Saturday in Prescott.

The investigative report released Saturday found "no indication of negligence, reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol" on the part of the firefighters and concluded that the fire that overtook the men was not survivable.

However, the report released by the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Team left a major question unanswered: Why did the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott leave relative safety atop a ridge that had been previously burned to descend into a bowl, where they were later trapped and killed?

The report also raised questions about whether there was proper communication, and investigators said incident managers in the future should consider "when incident complexities and operational tempo escalate rapidly, what are some of the things you can do to minimize resultant confusion?"

Both reports could provide a path to civil litigation for families of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott who perished in the June 30 blaze, according to two legal experts.

"Clearly, something happened that was wrong," said Rob Carey, who specializes in class-action lawsuits and was Arizona's chief deputy attorney general in the 1990s. "With certainty, there will be litigation that arises out of this tragedy. It's how our system handles wrongful deaths."

Carey and Ted Schmidt, a Tucson lawyer who specializes in injury and wrongful-death claims, said the state or the federal government could be defendants. But, they added, workers' compensation death benefits received by families of the victims may make it a challenge to bring suits against the government.

Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, who attended Saturday's public briefing, said he does not believe the city would be ordered to pay families' claims.

"I think we have no liability because we have complied with all the regulations, the rules and those things," he said. "But certainly, we want to make sure that the families are taken care of and at the same time, when we do that, I think Prescott will be taken care of. So, we've got to work our way through it."

Prescott City Attorney Jon Paladini said the city, as of Saturday, had not received any notices of claims pertaining to the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Before being allowed to sue, families of the victims would have to first file a notice of claim against the governmental body, Schmidt said.

In a claim, a plaintiff lays out in writing what allegedly occurred and the reason for the claim. The plaintiffs also have to list an amount they seek in damages.

The government has six months to respond and can accept, reject or ignore claims. Schmidt, who also teaches at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, said governmental bodies typically ignore such claims, prompting lawsuits.

In this case, Schmidt said, a lawsuit could be difficult to win because firefighters know when they take the job that there is a significant risk of bodily injury or death.

"It will not be an easy case," Schmidt said. "There will be a lot of hurdles to overcome."

Carey said in order to win a lawsuit, the plaintiffs would have to find "really intentional, egregious conduct."

Family members of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who died will receive standard death benefits for first responders.

Families of the six full-time firefighters will receive average lump-sum payments of $470,000 and up to $100,000 annually for years to come.

Families of the 13 part-time or seasonal workers who died will receive lump-sum payments of $328,000 and monthly worker's compensation based on the firefighters' hourly wages. They will not receive lifetime survivor benefits, life-insurance payments or continued health-insurance benefits.

AZ CENTRAL

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