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Yarnell Hill Fire: Investigators cite communication blackout

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YARNELL, AZ (CBS5/AP) -

An investigation into the June deaths of 19 firefighters killed while battling an Arizona blaze has found a litany of problems stemming from inadequate radio communication.

The report by a team of fire experts cites improperly programmed radios, vague updates and a three-minute communication blackout just before the flames engulfed the men.

The report says at the moment the firefighters were killed, an air tanker carrying fire retardant was hovering overhead, waiting for an update about their location.

The findings were released Saturday. [Click here to read the full report]

The 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots team arrived June 30 to fight the fire outside Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. About nine hours later, the crew radioed that they were trapped by flames and deploying their shelters. One crew member who was assigned as the lookout survived.

The Arizona State Forestry also issued the following statement Saturday:

The Arizona State Forester today released the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report, which analyzes the circumstances leading to the June 30 entrapment and deaths of 19 firefighters of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew. The report and accompanying documents are available at https://sites.google.com/site/yarnellreport/.

The State of Arizona convened an accident investigation team July 3 to review the conditions and events leading to the tragedy. The investigation team visited the site of the accident, reviewed audio and video files, interviewed individuals associated with the incident, reviewed fire weather and behavior data, and examined available records and physical evidence. The resulting report contains the most complete information available about the accident.

"Our mission was to find out what happened and to discern the facts surrounding this tragedy to the best of our ability," said Jim Karels, investigation team lead and the State Forester for the Florida Forest Service. "We also hope this report facilitates learning within the wildland fire community in order to reduce the likelihood of repeating actions that contributed to the loss of life."

The 116-page report includes a fact-based narrative of the incident and offers the investigation team's analysis, conclusions and recommendations. It also includes a discussion section that is meant to facilitate understanding and learning by exploring various perspectives and issues that arose during the investigation.

"Our number one concern right now is ensuring that the families have the information and support that they need as this report is released," said Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt. "Beyond that, it is critical that the State of Arizona and the broader wildland fire community have the opportunity to thoroughly review the report so that we fully understand the events leading to the loss of the Granite Mountain hotshots."

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) issued this statement:

"We hope that the information contained in this report will lead to reforms that can help prevent tragedies like this from occurring in the future. We owe it to the honorable 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were lost while protecting others, and to all who risk their lives fighting wildfires to learn from this event and implement changes that will protect first responders going forward. Our country remains ever grateful for their sacrifice."

CBS 5 News also received a statement from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer:

"I appreciate the recommendations they have made to the state with the aim to help improve wildfire safety and suppression in the future. I hope that the findings of this nationally-recognized team of investigators will further the healing process and give guidance for wildland firefighters in Arizona and around the nation."  

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation) contributed to this report.

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