Did a freak ‘black swan event’ kill the Arizona firefighters? Veterans suggest that phenomenon explains the tragic deaths
- Veteran forest firefighters speculate that a rare ‘black swan’ event claimed the lives of the 19 members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots on Sunday
- This comes as questions over what exactly went wrong loom as the investigation into their deaths begins
- One man, Brendan McDonough, 21, survived
- He was serving as lookout and relaying key information to his team when the wildfire suddenly changed direction
- Andrew Ashcraft died beside 18 of his ‘hotshot’ comrades on Sunday
- He was texting his wife all day until he abruptly stopped
- 19 firefighters confirmed dead near Arizona town of Yarnell
- Fire broke out after lightning strike on Friday and burned 8,400 acres
Speculation is growing that the 19 members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots battling the Arizona forest fires may have fallen victim to a rare, uncontrollable series of circumstances known as a ‘black swan’ event.
Popularized by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 novel of the same name, a ‘black swan’ is a million-to-one event unfolding in front of your eyes, such as 9/11 or the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918.
In the case of the Yarnell firefighters it was a massive, unexpected change in wind direction – something that came from nowhere, leaving them no time to react.
The origin of the phrase dates back to when early European explorers first encountered black swans in Australia in the 18th century and having always assumed that all swans were white they were categorically shown to be wrong.
Indeed, veterans are saying despite the tragic men of Yarnell being described as the Navy SEALS of forest firefighting and prepared for most eventualities with their superior training, it seems they could have fallen victim to the unpredictable nature of fires in the high desert of Arizona.
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Last Photograph: In this photo shot by firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watch a growing wildfire that later swept over and killed the crew of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Arizona
Corey Moser, the Prescott Fire Department division chief who rushed to the scene after he heard that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been engulfed in the flames was stunned to discover the scene of devastation that greeted him.
Arriving to find that 19 of his friends and co-workers had perished in the blaze – despite deploying their emergency fire shelters – Moser found a ‘moonscape’ of trees razed to the ground and rocks cracked and shattered from the furnace-like heat.
‘For them to have been run over like that tells me that something spectacular happened, something really unusual,’ said Moser, 37, to the Washington Post.
This week, investigators from across the U.S. will be working this week to try to answer what exactly happened, examining radio logs, the site of the tragedy and weather reports.
Grief: Linda Lambert touches the cross displayed for her nephew and Hot Shot Firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, at a makeshift memorial for the 19 firefighters who perished battling a fast-moving wildland fire in Yarnell, Arizona
Remembered: Linda Lambert places her hand across a plaque hanging on the fence outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station on Tuesday
They’ll also be talking to the sole survivor of the blaze, Brendan McDonough, who warned his fellow firefighters and friends when he saw the wildfire switch directions and head straight for them.
September 11th, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the 1929 stock market crash – Terrifying and Unpredictable: What is a ‘black swan’ event?
- A black swan is an unpredictable, rare and high impact event that no one could have predicted.
- Popularized by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 novel ‘The Black Swan‘ he describes rare but high impact events as like the first time European explorers first encountered a black swan in Australia – having always assumed swans were white.
- Black Swan events lie outside the realms of usual experience for people and are impossible to predict with nothing in past experience even pointing to the possibility of their existence.
- By definition, a black swan is the million-to-one chance that would never happen actually occurring right in front of your eyes.
- In reality, black swan events have been charactierized by 9/11, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 , the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of 1986 and the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
- A black swan event in the case of the Yarnell forest fires in Arizona refers to a blaze that suddenly behaves in an unexpected and dangerous manner
- Even to seasoned firefighters live with the feat of a black swan fire that comes without warning and total surprise
- A black swan fire also has terrific and often tragic results – in Arizona causing the death of 19 firefighters bravely battling the blaze
- Usually caused by a change in wind direction on the slopes of a desert outcrop – where the weather cannot be predicted – even with years of experience and the strength, speed and endurance to outrun the inferno.
They will be asking, why in the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts on 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 the team of Hotshots, most of them in the prime of their lives.
‘We can pretty much predict how something is going to behave inside four walls,’ said Moser to the Washington Post.
‘When you’re standing on the side of a mountain, sometimes weather just decides to do what it’s going to do.
‘It’s kind of like driving a car,’ he said. ‘You can do everything right and it doesn’t mean the person on the other side isn’t going to cross the double yellow line and hit you. And it’s the same with fires.’
He was on a hilltop serving as a lookout and warned his crew that the weather was changing rapidly, and that the fire had changed directions because of strong, erratic winds. McDonough made it to safety, while the rest were overtaken by the blaze.
‘He did exactly what he was supposed to,’ said Wade Ward, who implored the media to respect McDonough’s privacy as he and the families mourn.
‘He’s trying to deal with the same things that we’re all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that’s compounded being there on the scene.’
‘The difference between a structure fire and wildland fire is that the wildland fire will come get you, as we found out in a terrible, terrible way the other day,’ said Don Devendorf, another division chief with the Prescott Fire Department.
These tragic details come as a haunting photograph of members of the fire crew, taken just hours before they were overcome by flames, has emerged. The image shows smoke billowing in the distance and firefighters covered in soot as they took a break and watched their target on the horizon.
Raging Inferno: A home burns amidst the Yarnell Hill Fire in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013
Last: Firefighter Brendan McDonough, pictured, was the sole survivor of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew after an out-of-control blaze killed the 19 on Sunday near Yarnell
Lone survivor: Brendan McDonough, 21, was serving as lookout and relaying key information to his team when the wildfire, in the forest outside the small town of Yarnell, suddenly changed direction
COURAGE UNDER FIRE: NAMES OF 19 BRAVE FIREFIGHTERS RELEASED
Andrew Ashcraft – 29
Robert Caldwell – 23
Travis Carter – 31
Dustin Deford – 24
Christopher MacKenzie – 30
Eric Marsh – 43
Grant McKee – 21
Sean Misner – 26
Scott Norris – 28
Wade Parker – 22
John Percin – 24
Anthony Rose – 23
Jesse Steed – 36
Joe Thurston – 32
Travis Turbyfill – 27
William Warneke – 25
Clayton Whitted – 28
Kevin Woyjeck – 21
Garret Zuppiger – 27
At the time, its significance was small, part of a text exchange between a man and his wife.
‘This is my lunch spot … too bad lunch was an MRE,’ read the text message from Andrew Ashcraft to his wife, Juliann. It was a ‘meal ready to eat,’ carried along on trips by Hotshot crews.
Later that day, the 19 firefighters deployed their emergency shelters, a last-ditch effort to save their lives. It wasn’t enough. All of them died in the raging wildfire.
McDonough grieved with families of the fallen firefighters Tuesday evening at a public memorial service in Prescott.
More than 3,000 people gathered at a high school football stadium to remember the 19 men during a service punctuated by repeated moments of silence amid emotional remarks from pastors and officials.
‘On behalf of the Prescott Fire Department, I want to thank all of you,’ said Ralph Lucas, a battalion chief for the Prescott Fire Department.
‘This has brought us to our knees but at some point there will be another house fire or wildfire.’
After one moment of silence, 19 purple balloons – one for each of the fallen firefighters – were released into the air.
Respect: A firefighter holds up an electric candle during a candle light vigil and remembrance
Difficult: Juliann Ashcraft (left), the widow of one of the Yarnell Hill Fire victims attends the remembrance
Firefighter Jesus Acosta holds a candle as members of the vigil wept
United in grief: Family members hug as they attend the community event
Tears: Children in the section reserved for immediate family of the 19 firefighters killed in a nearby wildfire wait before a prayer vigil ceremony in Prescott
McDonough and victims’ families sat in a special seating area in the stadium that was roped off. He was not accessible to reporters and security escorted him and the others out of the venue when the event ended.
On his Facebook page, his friends and family expressed their relief that he had made it out alive.
One pal, Clayton Allmon, wrote: ‘Brendan I’m sorry for your loss and am thankful for your safety there is a lot to be sad for but so much to be thankful for if you need anything man let me know, my door is always open.’
The service marked the first opportunity for many in the Prescott community to gather together since 19 of the men fighting a fire in nearby Yarnell died in the line of duty.
‘We’re just here to share energy with our community,’ said Andrew Secundy, a Wells Fargo financial manager who couldn’t attend an afternoon memorial the previous day because of work.
The nine-member team of investigators, comprised of forest managers and safety experts who arrived in Arizona on Tuesday, is expected to release an update later this week.
The ultimate goal: Prevent a similar thing from happening again.
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Hugs: A woman holding a baby hugs another person seated in the section reserved for immediate family of the 19 firefighters killed in a nearby wildfire in Prescott
Patriotic: The road leading to a candle light vigil was lined with citizens holding the American flag
Pastors from various local churches gather in prayer as right people stand silently
Heroes: A group photograph shows members of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots, many of whom were killed on Sunday
‘We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible,’ Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said in a statement.
TOUGH BUT KIND: WHO ARE THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOTS?
Eighteen of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting team from Prescott, Arizona.
To join, candidates must complete a boot camp-style test to prove they are in peak physical condition. They have to run 1.5 miles in 10 minutes and 35 seconds, complete 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds, 25 push-ups in 60 seconds, and seven pull-ups.
Members trained by running, hiking, yoga, doing core exercises and weight training.
‘Problem solving, teamwork, ability to make decisions in a stressful environment and being nice are the attributes of our crewmembers,’ its website read.
After a fire breaks out, they hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and the blaze. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
The crew had battled fires in New Mexico and Arizona in recent weeks. The team, which was formed in 2002, is part of the Prescott Fire Department, the oldest in the state. The deaths mean that Prescott has lost a staggering 20 per cent of its department.
Safety standards for wildland firefighters were toughened nearly 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain, and investigators found a number of errors in the way the blaze was fought.
In what fire authorities said was an eerily similar situation to the Arizona blaze, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, creating 100-foot flames. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.
Essentially, it 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,’ he said.
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 and post lookouts.
Sunday’s tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot 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.
Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said the crew members might have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.
‘They don’t want to see a community burn down,’ Mangan said. ‘They want to get in there.’
Nearly 600 firefighters are battling the mountain blaze, which had burned about 13 square miles and destroyed an estimated 50 homes in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. Hundreds were evacuated.
By Tuesday evening, crews had contained 8 percent of the fire. While small, the containment figure marked the first sign of progress against a blaze that raged out of control for days. Until Tuesday, containment stood at zero percent.
‘It didn’t move much at all today and the thunder storms stayed away,’ Jim Whittington, spokesman for Southwest Incident Command Team. ‘We’re hoping tomorrow will be similar to today.’
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Sad scene: The sun sets as mourners gather
Tragic: The elite crew of firefighters were overtaken by the out-of-control blaze as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields on Sunday
Commemoration: People hold lights and US flags up as a sign of respect
Authorities expected Wednesday would bring similar weather that would help firefighters continue to advance on the fire. Officials at a news briefing said containment lines primarily along the northeast corner and southeast flank of the fire and encircling the structures in Yarnell.
Firefighters will try to get the whole east side contained Tuesday and continue to work the corners of the fire from there.
With the investigation just beginning, it’s not clear what help water- or retardant-dropping aircraft could have provided for the doomed crew.
One contractor, Neptune Aviation Services, had three aerial tankers making drops on the fire earlier in the day. But at the time the firefighters died, the planes had been grounded because of treacherous conditions, said chief executive Ronald Hooper.
‘It wasn’t safe for them to be in the air at that time,’ Hooper said. There were ‘severe winds, erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area.’
However, government dispatch logs show at least two other planes were flying over the fire at the time, one large tanker and one small one. There was also at least one firefighting helicopter in the air early Sunday afternoon.
Crews hope to allow evacuated Yarnell residents to return home by Saturday.
Four kids: Juliann Ashcraft, pictured, is left to raise four children alone after her husband Andrew Ashcraft died
Andrew Ashcraft’s final photograph was shared with the world on Tuesday morning by his heartbroken wife, Juliann, who also described her fears when the father-of-four never responded to her messages.
Juliann sobbed as she recounted the bravery of her beloved husband and his close unit of highly-trained ‘hotshot’ colleagues.
She said she had been texting her husband throughout the day – with him telling her how much he loved and missed her, and how proud he was of their young children – until he abruptly stopped.
‘I asked, “Will you be sleeping out there tonight?”‘ she told the Today show as she struggled to hold back the tears. ‘And of course there was no reply and they all laid out there that night.’
She added that she had been sending him pictures of their children swimming that day, and how his daughter had commented that she wished he was there to see the thunder storm with them.
He responded that he wished for that too. ‘We could sure use some rain over here,’ he said.
Mr Ashcraft also sent his wife a picture of their view of the smoke and flames from his team’s lunch spot on Sunday, and Juliann said that she was not particularly concerned when she saw it.
Heartbreaking: Devastating photos show Andrew Ashcraft, one of 19 victims of Arizona wild fires, grinning from ear to ear as he proudly poses with his young family
Missed: She had been married to Andrew Ashcraft, pictured, for seven years and they have four children
‘It still did not look as catastrophic as it turned out to be,’ she said. ‘But he let us know that he loved us and missed us. Because of the dangers of the job, he would always tell us that he loved us.’
Family photographs reveal a picture perfect family as Juliann and Andrew are seen grinning and kissing, as well as laughing along with their four young children.
She told the Today show how, apart from his family, fighting fires with the Granite Mountain Hotshots was his life.
‘He was the most amazing man,’ she said. ‘The best person I know. A contagious smile, a heart of gold. That’s why he did what he did, because he want to protect the community where he lived.’
Of his team, she added: ‘They loved what they did. These men lived together. They fought fires together. They died together – doing what they loved.’
Latest victims pictured: Joe Thurston, pictured center with his wife, Marsena Lopez-Thurston, and their two kids, was also killed in the fire
Sad: Sean Misner, right, perished on the mountainside with his brave colleagues
So young: Firefighter Garret Zuppiger, 27, was among those killed on June 30. many of the 19 killed were in their 20s
On Monday, Juliann was pictured at a makeshift memorial in Prescott for the fallen firefighters. She said she learned of her husband’s death while watching the news with their four children.
‘They died heroes,’ she told azcentral.com as she wept. ‘And we’ll miss them. We love them.’
Prescott High School physical education teacher and coach Lou Beneitone taught many of the Hotshots, and remembered Ashcraft as a fitness-oriented student.
‘He had some athletic ability in him and he was a go-getter, too. You could pretty much see, from young freshman all the way, he was going to be physically active.’
Beneitone said athletic prowess was a must for the Hotshots. ‘That’s what it takes. You gotta be very physically fit, and you gotta like it, gotta like the hard work.’
Ashcraft, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was honored to be a member of the Hotshot crew, and ‘he just had a really sweet spirit about him,’ Elise Smith, a Prescott, Arizona, resident, told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City.
The names of all 19 members of the elite firefighting crew who perished in the blaze were released late on Monday, after their bodies were retrieved from the mountain where they died.
Loss: Kevin Woyjeck, left, and Wade Parker, right, were among the firefighters who lost their lives on Sunday as they tried to battle a massive wildfire in Yarnell Hill, Arizona. Nineteen firefighters were killed
Proud: Kevin Woyjeck, right, is pictured with his father, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Joe Woyjeck
Loved: The bodies of Wade Parker, 22, left, and 21-year-old Woyjeck, right, were retrieved on Monday
Among the victims was Billy Warneke, a Marine Corps veteran who served a tour in Iraq and who was expecting his first child with his wife Roxanne this December, family told The Press Enterprise. The 25-year-old had joined the fire department just three months ago.
Also killed was Kevin Woyjeck, who followed in the footsteps of his father, a fire captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
His grandmother told the Long Beach Press Telegram that Kevin, originally from Seal Beach, California, had been a firefighter for around four years.
Tragic: Chris Mackenzie (right) also died in the inferno on Sunday. He had followed in the footsteps of his father, Mike MacKenzie (left), who was once the fire captain of Moreno Valley, California
Tragedy: Mackenzie, pictured left and right, died as the men tried to climb into emergency shelters
Killed: Travis Turbyfill, pictured with his family, also died with his team on Sunday on the mountainside
Fallen: Friends on Facebook also named Scott Norris, pictured, as one of the 19 victims
Another firefighter’s son lost his life; Capt. Michael MacKenzie, who was once the captain of Moreno Valley, California, said his son Chris died in the flames.
Chris MacKenzie joined the Forest Service in 2004 and had been in the Prescott Fire Department for two years.
Other firefighters who have been identified include the Hotshots superintendent Eric Marsh, 22-year-old Wade Parker and father-of-four Andrew Ashcraft.
The tragedy is the deadliest single incident for firefighters since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, where as many as 340 crew members lost their lives, officials said. It is also the deadliest wildland blaze for firefighters in the U.S. for 80 years.
‘Our entire crew was lost,’ Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told reporters. ‘We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. Right now, we’re in crisis.’
Elite team: A photo from April 12, 2012 shows a squad leader with the Granite Mountain Hotshots training crew members on setting up emergency fire shelters outside of Prescott, Arizona
Last hope: The firefighters deployed the emergency shelters on Sunday but died (picture from April 2012)
Emergency shelter: Firefighters dig into the earth and lay in the shelters, hoping the fire will pass over them