The Arizona Industrial Commission overseeing workplace safety decided in a 4-0 vote on Wednesday that fire officials knowingly put protection of property ahead of the safety of the 19 firefighters who died in the wildfire tragedy in June.
"The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it," said Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health lead investigator Marshall Krotenberg, according to the Associated Press. "But there was no plan to move people out of the way."
ADOSH's report stated: "When the employer knew that suppression of extremely active chaparral fuels was ineffective and that wind would push active fire towards non-defensible structures, firefighters working downwind were not promptly removed from exposure to smoke inhalation, burns, and death." It also cited a variety of other workplace-safety infractions.
The 19 firefighters from an elite "hotshot" crew who lost their lives on June 30 were caught in a major blaze near the small community of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix. Although the squad usually had escape routes and safety zones set up for such scenarios, in that instance the fire became so big that it overtook them.
Tributes poured in from across the country for the fallen firefighters and their families, with Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo calling them "some of the finest people you'll ever meet."
The wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes and burned 13 square miles before finally being contained on July 10.
The Arizona commission is now blaming the state's Forestry Division for the deaths, however, and imposed a $559,000 fine. Krotenberg told the commission at the hearing that officers should have been selected to ensure the firefighters' safety. Family members of the firefighters who read the report noted that it provides an important insight into the tragedy.
"Finally, people that are educated, that are experienced, that have researched it and have a less biased opinion – they're just there objectively – that they get it," said Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband Andrew Ashcraft was killed in the fire.
Commission chairman David Parker noted that the fire management team did everything it could to defend the community and provide safety for the people, but added that "it's not the intention of the people that (is) in question, it's that employees remained exposed after they no longer should be exposed."
The Forestry Division has insisted that it cooperated fully with the investigation, but has not said yet if it will appeal the decision.
"We have not reviewed the ADOSH Yarnell Hill Report which was just released today, and we cannot provide any statement on the report or the Industrial Commission's actions. The Forestry Division will have an opportunity to meet with ADOSH representatives to discuss their findings and recommendations after we have reviewed the report," a statement read.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's office said it will study the ADOSH report.
"The Yarnell Hill Fire was a terrible and unprecedented tragic event that took the lives of 19 brave firefighters from the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots," Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said in a statement to The Republic. "The Governor's office will study the report released today from the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Due to the likelihood of legal action, we will not be providing additional comment."