“Maps were the key pieces of intelligence that were needed early on, but many crews did not have them. Several respondents reported coming across new neighborhoods that were not on the outdated maps they had”, stated a Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center publication entitled Initial Impressions Report: Southern California Fires 2007: What We Learned, How We Worked.
Six years later, many of those working on the Yarnell Hill Fire were not issued maps either, including the doomed Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew. When the critical time came to determine their location, they could only confirm that they were on the south side of the fire. This was moments before the fire overtook the crew. If their exact location had been known, a retardant drop could have been made in an attempt to save the crew.
Firefighters are required to carry fire shelters for their safety because we never know when a seemingly “safe” fire will become a life-threatening situation. There is currently no requirement that firefighters carry maps of a fire area, if for no other reason than the occurrence of an emergency.
Safety Matters suggests that improvement in the following areas could provide increased firefighter safety:
First, maps should be required for any resource assigned to the fireline. Current technology allows for maps to be made available electronically. Firefighters on the line should carry appropriate technology that allows them to download the most recent versions of maps of the fire area. Anyone with a GPS capable cell phone and a free app can quickly read their current location in terms of longitude and latitude to within a range that would be acceptable in the event of an emergency. In areas where technology and electricity is minimal, paper maps should be required.
Second, a standard map system should be designated for the wildland fire community. There is currently no recognized map standard for the wildland fire community, even though a standard mapping grid system exists — the U.S. National Grid (USNG). Currently, wildland firefighters use different mapping grid systems that include, but are not limited to Public Lands Survey (Township, Range, Section), Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Coordinate System, Military Grid Reference System (MGRS), and longitude and latitude which may be expressed in either decimals or degrees/seconds.
The overall complexity of any situation can be further increased when degrees, minutes and seconds, their decimal equivalents, yards and meters are comingled. The USNG is already being used by the Department of Homeland Security FEMA, and the States of Florida and North Carolina for emergency operations.
The situation can be further complicated when aviation resources use longitude and latitude expressed in degrees and seconds, while Planning and Geographic Information Services (GIS) personnel may use longitude and latitude expressed in decimal units.
In conclusion, maps were identified as a significant problem in 2007, and while the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew had communications, they were unable to relay their exact location. Safety Matters is compelled to ask: Could these 19 firefighter fatalities have been safely prevented if the crew had been able to communicate their coordinates earlier? Maybe not, but this is one question that will continue to haunt the wildland firefighting community.