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Before firefighters' deaths, weather model showed shifting winds

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PRESCOTT, Ariz. -

It's been more than three weeks since the Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 hotshots near Prescott. We don't know what happened that day -- an investigation is still underway. But you can be sure, weather played a role.

A monsoon thunderstorm moved over the area just before the hotshots died. And most agree that storm turned the fire-fight into a fire ambush.

But FOX 10 News has learned there was a weather forecast earlier that day that could have made a difference.

June 30th, a Sunday afternoon. 20 forest service hotshots worked the Yarnell Hill Fire southwest of Prescott when a storm approached the area.

"You will see areas of high wind speeds up here near Prescott early in the afternoon."

But what you're looking at was not recorded after the storm swept through Yarnell. It's a computer generated forecast model posted several hours before the Yarnell Fire killed 19 that afternoon.

"The model run completes at about 9 o'clock in the morning," says University of Arizona meteorologist Michael Leuthold.

This computer model correctly forecast gusty and changing winds from a collapsing thunderstorm that afternoon. Right over the Yarnell Hill Fire.

"All four of our runs predicted strong winds in Yavapai County between three and five o'clock in the afternoon," says Leuthold.

Neither the Forest Service nor the National Weather Service will talk to us about what happened on Yarnell Hill -- not until after the investigation is complete.

But imagine if the 20 hotshots had known winds would intensify, and shift 180 degrees after 4 p.m. that afternoon. Would they have planned their attack differently? We may never know.

Here's a closer look at the weather forecast model generated that very morning. That little red triangle is the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The red in this forecast model is increasing wind speed moving down from the north. The shifting white arrows show wind direction and speed.

Someone reading this very forecast model the morning of June 30th would see winds 20 miles per hour out of the southwest. But by 4 p.m. that day, winds would shift rapidly to the opposite direction and double in speed.

This was what the Granite Mountain hotshots walked right into, several hours after this computer model made its predictions.

"There's a weather station right here that recorded 43 mile per hour wind gust," says Michael

Meteorologists at the U of A had no idea firefighters were being deployed to Yarnell Hill that Sunday afternoon.

There was no way for them to make a connection between the forecast, and what was happening on the ground.

"What we do after a big event, and a big event is any significant weather event, is go back and look at our model and see how well it performed."

But after seeing the story on the news, they did what they call a "post mortem" on the forecast Monday morning, and they were amazed by what they saw.

"There's 4:20 in the afternoon and that's almost exactly when it occurred."

A preliminary report on the investigation did state that fire behavior was extreme with heavy winds.

But it didn't address what kind of information the hotshots had at the time, even though the Weather Service in Phoenix says it uses the U of A models religiously.

And the Yarnell area at the time of the fire was getting updated weather information from the Flaggstaff office of the National Weather Service, not the one in Phoenix.

"We actually send our digital version of this to the Phoenix office so they can bring this type of display up on their own computers."

Did those 20 hotshots deployed that day know what was waiting for them over Yarnell Hill?

On June 30th, and still to this day, the U of A forecast model is posted online for anyone to use free of charge. a final report on the Yarnell Hill blaze is due 60 days after the fire.

Maybe then we will find out if the Granite Mountain hotshots had access to that forecast or not.

Michael Leuthold says the U of A forecast model isn't perfect -- it still makes plenty of mistakes -- but it is a tool that firefighters could use anytime. It's free and available online.

U of A weather model: http://www.atmo.arizona.edu/index.php?section=weather&id=wrf

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