McDonough deposition scratched again


The Prescott Courier is reporting that Granite Mountain Hotshot survivor Brendan McDonough’s deposition scheduled for earlier this week to discuss details of the moments leading up to the deaths of 19 of his fellow crew members on June 30, 2013 was canceled.

The Courier states that McDonough was prepared to be deposed but that a disagreement between attorneys over who should be present for the sworn interview led to the cancellation. This marks the third time that McDonough’s deposition has been scheduled but not held.

Slow Response, Predictable Path of Thunderstorms, Were Precursors to Yarnell Hill Firefighters’ Deaths


InvestigativeMedia is reposting the following story that was first published at 9:26 a.m., July 6, 2013. The story includes a series of bulletins issued by the Yarnell Fire Department that were removed from its website shortly after this story was first posted. The bulletins show that department recognized the threat posed by the thunderstorms by early on the afternoon of June 30, 2013, hours before 19 members of Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a box canyon west of Yarnell. In fact, the department warned the community to be on “high alert”  in an early morning bulletin on June 30.

By John Dougherty

Peeples Valley, AZ–Ninety-four-year-old Barbara Kelso was having dinner in a restaurant in this small ranching community 90 miles northwest of Phoenix on Friday, June 28 when she saw a lightning bolt strike the hills a few miles away. Moments later, smoke started billowing skyward.

Kelso, who retired in December as chairman of the Yarnell Fire District Board after serving seven years, immediately called 911.

“They said they heard of the smoke and someone was checking,” Kelso said during an impromptu interview at the Southwest Incident Management Command center where officials are directing firefighting operations for the Yarnell Hill fire that has burned more than 8,200 acres.

Kelso works as a volunteer for the Command, which is based in a local middle school. “I think I saw the lightning bolt that started the fire,” she said during a July 5 interview.

[Read more…]

Forestry division seeks subpoena to compel McDonough’s testimony


The Arizona State Forestry Division has requested that an administrative law judge issue a subpoena compelling Brendan McDonough to be deposed on May 26.

Two previous efforts to depose McDonough about what he heard in intra-crew radio communications in the minutes leading up to the June 30, 2013 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were unsuccessful. McDonough was not with the rest of the crew when they were trapped in a box canyon west of Yarnell.

The forestry division is contesting three citations and a $559,000 fine levied by the state Division of Occupational Safety & Health for its alleged gross negligence in managing the Yarnell Hill Fire. The proceedings are before Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Mosesso.

“Although this Tribunal normally does not issue subpoenas for the attendance of witnesses at depositions, in this situation ASFD believes that it is necessary to do so,” a May 1 legal brief filed by forestry division attorney David Selden states. “ASFD has been actively attempting to take Mr. McDonough’s deposition for six months.”

McDonough was scheduled to be deposed last November, but that deposition was postponed because of a scheduling conflict with his attorney. The deposition was then set for Feb. 26.  Selden’s May 1 filing states the February deposition didn’t occur after McDonough’s attorney, David Shapiro, sent a copy of a letter from McDonough’s therapist stating “that deposition would be detrimental to the treatment of Mr. McDonough for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Selden noted that during the same period McDonough “avoided being deposed” that he had “been collaborating with an author on a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire.”

The forestry division is requesting the deposition occur before June 1 when another round of mediation talks  is scheduled seeking to reach a global settlement on the ADOSH citations and civil suits filed against the forestry division by surviving family members.

Yarnell Hill Fire investigations leave a shameful legacy



Both state-sponsored formal investigations into the June 30, 2013 deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots failed to determine the root cause of the tragedy.

Even worse, there is now troubling evidence that the Serious Accident Investigation Report sponsored by the State Forestry Division and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s workplace safety investigation purposely avoided finding out what truly happen on that dreadful afternoon.

It’s possible both state investigations simply overlooked the obvious by failing to press Brendan McDonough, Granite Mountain’s sole survivor, for details about crucial radio communications between Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh and the crew’s captain, Jesse Steed — but very unlikely.

If the investigators really wanted to know the gritty details of the decisions made by Granite Mountain’s leaders in the moments leading up to the monumental catastrophe, all they had to do was ask McDonough.

But according to 100 gigabytes of records, photos, videos and interviews publicly released from the two investigations, nobody ever asked McDonough what he heard over the crew’s radio in the crucial moments leading up to their deaths.

It’s not because investigators didn’t know McDonough was privy to fundamentally important information. Both investigations state that McDonough heard radio traffic between Marsh and Steed discussing their options just before the crew made an inexplicable decision to leave its safety zone.

But neither investigation bothered to ask McDonough the obvious question:

“Mr. McDonough, what did you hear Granite Mountain’s leaders say in the moments leading up to their deaths? Please provide as much detail as you can.”

There’s a good reason why the state investigators didn’t ask the key question. By failing to ask, the state of Arizona could avoid disclosing the horrific details that led up to the disaster. And those details now indicate that the Granite Mountain Hotshot’s leaders made decisions that ultimately led to the men’s deaths.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were part of the Prescott Fire Department. But the crew was also considered a state resource through an intergovernmental agreement between Prescott and the Arizona Forestry Division. So while Granite Mountain Hotshots were employed by Prescott, the city was reimbursed by the state for their wages at rate far greater than the average pay.

The state investigations now appear to have purposely avoided pursuing a line of questioning that would have placed blame on Marsh and Steed for their decisions. Thus, the state avoided casting blame on a state resource.

Instead, the state has adopted a whitewash and wrist-slapping policy to deflect the public from the truth of what happened in Yarnell.

The whitewash was applied by the state’s Serious Accident Investigation Report released in September 2013 that concluded nobody did anything wrong.

Unnamed investigators from the Serious Accident Investigation Team interviewed McDonough on July 5, 2013, five days after McDonough’s friends and colleagues were trapped in a 2,000-degree firestorm.

The interview was cursory, at best.

Notes of the interview abruptly end after McDonough states he had the opportunity to listen to the radio traffic between Marsh and Steed just prior to the crew moving out of its safety zone near the top of the Weaver Mountains.

“I started the truck, turned on the AC and made sure the truck radios were on the right channel and turned the volume up,” McDonough told investigators.

That’s all the SAIT investigators wanted to hear – at least on the record.

The wrist slapping comes in the form of the ADOSH investigation. The work place safety investigation takes a serious swipe at the state Forestry Division for allegedly mishandling the fire by issuing three citations and levying $559,000 in fines. But in the end, all this amounts to is the state of Arizona fining itself (with $25,000 earmarked for each of the surviving families) while generating huge legal feels for the private law firm representing the Forestry Division.

ADOSH also failed to get to the root reason of why Granite Mountain was trapped by a wall of flames at the base of a box canyon filled with dried out desert brush. ADOSH investigators had two lengthy interviews with McDonough. But they too never asked the 23-year-old firefighter who was in his third year on the crew what he heard Marsh and Steed discuss.

McDonough was left alone to carry the burden of what he knew to be the true facts surrounding the worse loss ever sustained by an Interagency Hotshot Crew. It was an impossible chore. Information began to leak out into the wild fire community that McDonough heard Marsh and Steed arguing about whether to move the crew.

Rumors of the Marsh/Steed argument surfaced last June during a presentation by U.S. Forest Service official Mike Dudley to Utah wild lands firefighters. Dudley was a co-leader of the Yarnell Serious Accident Investigation Team. Dudley raised and quickly dismissed the rumor as something that couldn’t be confirmed. The only reason it couldn’t be confirmed is because Dudley’s SAIT team had failed to ask McDonough.

Last October, McDonough called former Prescott Wildlands Division chief Darrell Willis and said he needed to talk. Willis oversaw the Granite Mountain crew.

McDonough reportedly told Willis that Marsh and Steed debated over a crucial tactical decision. Marsh wanted the crew to leave its mountain top safety zone and to join him near a ranch house in the valley below by traversing through a box canyon packed with drought stricken chaparral.

Steed wanted to keep the crew in “the black” and wait out the firestorm raging below. A heated discussion ensued. Steed eventually agreed to move the crew, against his wishes. Steed, however, had the authority to turn down Marsh’s request if he believed it would put the crew at risk.

It was the penultimate moment in a wild fire tragedy of unprecedented scale.

Willis relayed McDonough’s story to the Prescott city attorney and state officials. McDonough’s bombshell disclosure remained quiet for several more months.

But records generated in the Forestry Division’s appeal of the ADOSH citations and fine tipped journalists off that McDonough had information that would fundamentally change the public’s perception of what happened on Yarnell Hill. Last week, the Prescott City Attorney told the press about the argument between Marsh and Steed.

McDonough’s story, at this point, is nothing more than hearsay. And it should in no way diminish the character of Granite Mountain’s leaders. Fighting wildfires is a dangerous business. A wrong decision can be fatal.

McDonough’s lawyer says he will testify, if legally compelled to do so.

But that day may never come.

The state has abdicated its responsibility to conduct honest and thorough investigations that discover the truth about the events that led to the deaths of 19 young men and to share the information with the public and the families of the deceased.

Instead, Arizona has cruelly shifted that terrible responsibility to McDonough.

The state’s handling of the Yarnell Hill investigations has been shameful and certainly unworthy of the ultimate sacrifice made by the Granite Mountain Hotshots.