Yarnell Hill worst ‘firefighting’ disaster in U.S. history

There is a vast difference between “firefighters” and “men fighting fires.”  One is trained to fight fires, the other is not.

So seems the case when comparing the 29 killed in the Griffith Park Fire of 1933 and the 19 killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.  It is more than just the time frame of 80 years that separates them.

Most news accounts inaccurately describe the Griffith Park Fire as the most deadly firefighting event in U.S. history, with the Yarnell Fire in Arizona a distant second.

A close look at the tragedy in Griffith Park, north of Los Angeles, shows a vast contrast with the firefighting capabilities in Arizona by the Granite Mountain Hotshots.  The Hotshots, in addition to having use of the latest communication devices and weather reports, have been described as an elite and highly-trained group of young men.  The Griffith Park “firefighters” were anything but.

The description below was gleaned from a series of 1994 articles done by a California newspaper, the Glendale News-Press.

It was October 3, 1933, a clear afternoon with torrid temperatures reported at noon as high as 100 F in downtown L.A.   At the height of the Great Depression, more than 3,700 male workers and transients had signed up to help clear brush and construct improvements at Griffith Park as part of Los Angeles County’s welfare relief program.   The workers received 40 cents a day for their efforts, or $2.40 for their normal work week of six days.

The fire began about 2 p.m. under an oak tree in the park and developed quickly.

“A shift in wind sent a shaft of flame up the slopes of Dam Canyon,” it was reported.

The workers, depending on the source, were either commanded by bosses or volunteered to pick up their shovels and beat out the fire.  The first trained firemen did not arrive for some time.  By then the damage had been done.  Many had fled uphill wrongly thinking they could find safety up there.  And died.

There were no fire shelters like the Hotshots deployed.  One man survived by jumping into a stone planter he was constructing and covering himself with sand.

Trained firemen soon found they had no control over the thousands of workers.  Disorganization ruled.  There was no communication.  Radio dispatches were years away.  There were no weather reports regarding wind of anything else as was the case at Yarnell.  The Griffith Park workers were left to their own devices.  Some fled, others stayed and did more damage than good.  The fire was soon put out.  The burned area amounted to only about 47 acres.

Later, a Coroner’s Inquest panel of 9 firefighting experts said most of the deaths were not caused by the original fire.  They were caused by workers lighting ill-concenived “back-fires” that turned on them.

In an order to save face, it may behoove federal, state and local officials in Arizona to downplay the Yarnell Fire by pointing to the Griffith Park fire as far worse.  But a close inspection of the facts will tell the discerning fact-finder otherwise.



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