While dangerous work like firefighting often requires decisive and quick action against one of nature’s most destructive elements, do the inherent risks of firefighting justify risky decision-making by officials? In this dangerous and often daring line of work, when is the line between protecting the public and protecting public employees crossed – and who is responsible when that line is crossed?
On June 30, 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) of 20 elite firefighters, lost their lives battling the Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona. An initial investigation conducted by the Arizona State Forestry Division (ASFD) found some communication problems but overall declared the Yarnell Hill Fire a no-fault tragedy, focusing largely on the actions of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who, according to the investigation, made an unknown and last-minute decision to move from a safety zone to an area closer to the wildfire (leading to their deaths).
However, several months later, another investigation conducted by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health (ADOSH) declared the ASFD responsible for the deaths of the 19 firefighters. ADOSH admonished the ASFD for putting the value of property above people and fined the ASFD $559,000 for three violations per § A.R.S. 23-403(A). An explanation has also been given for why the Granite Mountain Hotshots moved from their safety zone: The firefighters were asked if they could