Official: Granite Mountain Hotshot leader Eric Marsh violated safety protocols while acting as a “division supervisor”

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By John Dougherty

PHOENIX—Eric Marsh, the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, violated wildfire safety protocols when he and 18 of his firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, Jerry Payne, the Arizona State Forestry Division deputy director, said Monday.

Marsh, 43, was given wide latitude to make tactical decisions in the field without first seeking permission from a superior because was operating as a “division supervisor” for several crews fighting the fire while remaining in the field with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Payne said.

A Granite Mountain Hotshot t-shirt is draped over a cactus. The shelter deployment site is behind. The crew descended into the box canyon from the saddle on the ridge.

A Granite Mountain Hotshot t-shirt is draped over a cactus. The shelter deployment site is behind. The crew descended into the box canyon from the saddle on the ridge.

“He (Marsh) was the boss. He was the assigned division supervisor,” Payne said.

Payne said that once Marsh became a division supervisor, he delegated command of the hot shot crew to his captain, Jesse Steed. But Marsh remained with the crew, Payne said.

Payne said it appears that Marsh violated several basic wildfire rules including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation near a wildfire.

“The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk,” Payne said.

Payne released Marsh’s name in response to a public records request filed by InvestigativeMedia seeking the names of all division supervisors, operations chiefs and incident commanders during the Yarnell Hill Fire. Payne said there was “some sensitivity” to releasing Marsh’s name as one of the division supervisors.

The Prescott Fire Department, which operated the Granite Mountain Hotshots, did not comment about Marsh’s role as a division supervisor nor the state’s assessment that Marsh violated safety rules.

Firefighters are expected to follow the “10 Standard Fire Orders” and “18 Watch Out Situations” at all times, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildfire management operations across the country.

The fire orders include knowing weather conditions, knowing what the fire is doing at all times, basing all actions on current and expected fire behavior, identifying escape routes and posting lookouts when there is possible danger. The watch-out situations include having “unburned fuel between you and the fire” and not being able to see the fire and not being in communication with anyone who can.

Payne said it appears that Marsh believed he had time to lead his crew from a safe area on a ridge that had already been burned and down a hillside packed with a tangle of chaparral, through the heavily vegetated box canyon and to a safety zone at a nearby ranch where vegetation had been cleared.

At the time, the fire was a mile or two away, Payne said

“What’s the fastest way, well hell, we’ll just zip down through this valley and we got an hour,” Payne said describing what he believes was going through Marsh’s mind at the time he made the decision to move this crew “out of the black”.

The media gathers around a fenced area where the Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed their shelters on June 30, 2013.

The media gathers around a fenced area where the Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed their shelters on June 30, 2013.

Their goal, Payne believes, was to reach Yarnell and assist with efforts to protect houses and other structures that were underway.

“It was a calculated risk. They didn’t even make it halfway,” Payne said. “It was a serious miscalculation, in my opinion. It was an honest mistake.”

Nevertheless, Payne said Marsh knew that he “should have had somebody watching the fire.”

Before making their descent, Payne said that Marsh communicated with the Granite Mountain Hotshot lookout, Brendan McDonough, who was located on a different ridge to the north, and made sure he had an escape route.

McDonough left his position as the fire approached and met up with the Blue Ridge Hotshot team that was operating nearby. McDonough is the only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to survive the fire.

Payne said there were one or two other division supervisors on June 30, and said he didn’t believe that the Blue Ridge Hotshots were under Marsh’s supervision. But Payne declined to provide the name of the supervisor overseeing the Blue Ridge crew.

About the same time Marsh and his crew began the descent into the wooded canyon without a lookout and without direct view of the fire, powerful downdrafts from a rapidly moving thunderstorm approaching from the northeast reversed the direction of the fire and dramatically increased its intensity and ground speed.

The fire streaked across the dried out landscape moving as fast as 12 miles per hour—an unprecedented rate of speed, Payne said. Rather than having an hour to reach the ranch safety zone, the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew would have only minutes before the fire covered two miles.

By the time the Granite Mountain crew reached the base of the ridge the fire had swept into the canyon and was heading straight for the men, forcing them to deploy their fire shelters at about 4:47 p.m. Only five of the men were found inside their shelters when a Department of Public Safety medic reached the deployment site sometime after 5:30 p.m. and found all 19 men dead.

Because of weather conditions, a DPS helicopter was unable to take off for about 30 minutes after hearing over the radio that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had deployed their shelters. And once airborne, the helicopter wasn’t sure exactly where the crew was located.

“Nobody knew they dropped off the hill,” Payne said.

Payne said that wildland firefighters are supposed to adhere to basic safety protocols known as “LCES”, which stands for “Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones.”

In this case, it appears, based on Payne’s assessment, that the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the rulebook behind.

The crew began its descent into the box canyon without a lookout, Payne said.

“As soon as they dropped off that hill, their safety zone was compromised,” Payne said. “They had to make a new one.”

Nor, Payne said, is there any indication that Marsh sought to communicate with aircraft spotters that had been circling the fire.

It is unclear, however, whether all aircraft had been grounded because of weather conditions by the time the Granite Mountain Hotshots made their decision to move into the canyon, according to aircraft dispatch logs released by the forestry division.

The crew also had no clear escape route, but instead bushwacked through thick chaparral that slowed their movement down the hillside. And finally, the hotshots did not have clear access to a safety zone if their path was cut off by fire.

Despite the apparent mistakes, Payne said Marsh’s decisions were not unlike those made routinely while fighting wildfires where decisions are often based on a calculated risk rather than strictly by the written rules. Payne said Marsh’s decision was something he and many other firefighters would have made.

“This is…a mistake that any [of] us [could] have made,” said Payne, who spent most of his career fighting fires and is certified as a Type 3 incident commander and division supervisor.

An inter-agency incident review team is expected to issue its investigation report to the state forestry division in mid-September, Payne said. The state forestry division is not involved in the investigation and will release the report to the public after it is reviewed by the Prescott Fire Department, the governor’s office and family members, he said.

Payne said he expects that litigation will ensue.

“The lawsuits are going to start,” he said. “The sharks are circling.”

Update:11:17 a.m.

Shortly after posting the story, Jerry Payne called InvestigativeMedia and stated that he was referring to the 18 Watch Out Situations and not the 10 Standard Fire Orders when he stated: “The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk.”

He said wildland firefighters will not always abide by the Watch Out Situations, depending on the circumstances.

There is, however, some over lap between the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations. Fire Order No. 2 states: “Know what your fire is doing at all times.”

Watch Out Situation No. 12 states: “Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.”

Fire Order No.4 states: “Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.”

Watch Out Situation No. 3 states: “Safety zones and escape routes not identified.”

© Copyright 2013 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA

Comments

  1. Robert (Bob ) Powers says

    Sence Mangulch and The Rattel snake fire of 1953 Wild land Fire fighters started the Safety program of the 10 Standard Orders and the Situations that shout watch out. As a Wild land Fire Fighter for 32 years, A Hot Shot Foreman, Enigen Foreman and a Fire Boss 2 I started in 1962. The one thing that is always true with fatality Fires is that some one violates an order or situation and that starts the domino affect. There is No blame its tolate for that it then becomes a learning process we must go through to identify what happened. Do not confuse the Two. My father died on the Rattel Snake Fire before there were orders or situations but some of thoses came from that fire. There were mistakes made but I never felt that that they blamed my father but that he helped others to not make the same mistakes. Things happen when we forget to follow the rules. One thing to remember Wildland Fire fighters DEATHS are not the norm. For what they do they do well. Stay safe Fight fire aggressivly but provide for Safety First.

  2. Dan Key retired Silver city hotshot superintent says

    There is a lot of blameing and opinions. Im hope that everyone will just stop and remember that as a hotshot superintendent. I feel that Eric would have never taken his crew into a unsafe stituation if he would known it. We have all made mistakes and have gotten away with them.
    Im a safety officer now and im sure when all this investagation is completed that we will find out the the cheeze hole effect was happening.
    Type three team fire are the most dangerous type of fires. we are usually are short handed and resorces are not all in place when we get on the ground. so it maybe no wander that Eric may have felt he had to do double duty.

    But i will say that we have no bussiness protecting towns or homes that the owner pay fire insurance and the insurance companys and the owners do no work for years to make the homes fire proof. why should we risk our son and daughter for anything that can be regrown or rebuilt.

    Im am sure that Eric would want all of us to learn from this and not blame and point fingers. I feel very sorry for all the family that buried thier fathers, thier husbands, and thier sons..

  3. Hopeful that all negatives stop says

    So…in the end, as with all tragedies…only the fallen know the real story and everything else is just speculation! Usually there aren’t so many fatalities, so you have to wonder…why would 19 intelligent and fit men all agree, if it didn’t at the time seem to be the best option? That being said…let’s just let these fine selfless men REST IN PEACE AND LET THE FAMILY’S GREIVE without any GRANDSTANDING from a lot of know it alls because there isn’t anyone here who can tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God!

  4. Avery Haggard says

    My guess is that the crew unanimously decided to head down the mountain, to meet the fire head on, as it had turned and was heading straight for Yarnell. If any of them had disagreed with Eric’s decision, they would not have followed him. This is what makes them heroes. They took a calculated risk to be at the front of the fire saving homes and possibly lives.
    I know the country around Yarnell, AZ very well. There are hills of granite boulders as big as houses in a jumbled maze with thick stands of oak and brush growing in-between them. I can see how a fast-moving fire could sneak up on them.

  5. Ron Anderson says

    And now the innuendo starts. An AZ state forester accuses Eric Marsh of Violating protocols leading to the death of his crew as he was the division supervisor.

    Im betting Eric is somewhere with guys like Wag Dodge (supervisor smoke jumper in the Mann Gulch tragedy 1945). Just like Eric, Wag also saw the innuendo, the accusations and the blame. And Just like the many other incidents on wildfires all of it is 20/20 HINDSIGHT.
    For all of the investigations gone on in the past, we still loose firefighters today in much the same situations. The common denominator is FLUID AND DYNAMIC situations. Its EASY to retrospectively examine and see other options as viable. Quite another to execute perfection under rapidly changing conditions and scenarios at the time they are happening..

    It has been said the crew should have stayed in the black instead of attempting a short cut through an un burned canyon no knowing the fire location or activity. Granted that would have kept them safe. Eric knew this better than anyone. He would have not risked himself and crew had the condition at that time been otherwise. Perhaps they were racing to engage in point protection of near by ranches and residences. Which is one strong scenario being considered. Its also my thought that the decisions made that day were unanimous among the crew , squad bosses and captain..

    IN THE BLACK is the foremost safety zone in any given burn. The land cant burn twice. I stressed that to crews during my 15 yrs ten thousand times if i said it once. But I ALSO took short cuts, made risky decisions ( in retrospect) and did much the same as any other guy out there would do.

    Granite mountain crew had visited the sight of the Storm King MTn tragedy of 1994 last year, and had discussed the event vowing to never let it happen again, as soooo many crews have that have made that hike to those crosses on the mtn. We all vow that our crew safety has always been number one in priority. But wildfire can act outside of expected behavior and will always do so. Ill never forget watching an early may fire burn like august- running over and melting snowfields and crowning. Running for a safety zone in early may is simply ridiculous, but it happened.

    So Wag and Eric Dan and Others now fall into a de-ja -vu category of wildland firefighter tragedies. They all were in rapidly changing dynamic situations and had to make decisions based on the intel at the time. They all received “heat” for the decisions made, and they were all caught in incidents that happened before and will happen again despite the efforts otherwise.

  6. Robert says

    All the reports and comments posted should keep in mind that wildland firefighting is inherently dangerous. It’s an unfortunate tragedy that these brave young men died needlessly. Instead of second guessing, let’s keep their families in our thoughts and prayers, they are suffering and will for a long time. Focus on what can be done to improve safety for those fighting these fires. Perhaps hotshot crews and smoke jumpers should only be deployed in immediate vicinity of structures to protect life and property. Point no fingers, place no blame. Pray for the families of the fallen and ask what you can do to honor these men.

  7. East Coast Fireman says

    I have all the respect in the world for you guys and gals out west doing wild land firefighting but since people with knowledge seem to be posting I have an honest question….Is it really worth the loss to put folks in these situations to protect land that is worthless (compared to firefighter lives). I’m just trying to gain a better perspective since we dont have these types of incidents where I’m from. My apologies in advance if I offend anyone with this question since that is not my intent. Rest easy brothers, we got it from here

    • says

      We fight fire from safe zones; simple as that.

      From the initial anchor point, all the way through, you have a place to go, no matter what the fire does.

      Protect Life & Property; in that order. Put your life in danger and someone else will risk theirs to save yours! Not Good.

    • Sue Jorgensen says

      East Coast, this is my 31st year in fire evenly distributed between urban and wildland, 9 years as a Crew Captain. I’ll give explaining a shot,you are not supposed to routinely put yourself in jeopardy for bushes, dirt and houses that can be rebuilt. I watched the you tube video of Chief Willis speaking they have mixed the wildland culture and the structure/saving babies culture to explain the crews death. This fatality fire was preventable and predictable just at first look there were a dozen safety violations. If you look back at the Esperanza Fatalities that was because of this dangerous mix that we should take great risks to save empty houses one of the findings was to take a step back and really assess the risk vs gain. As Riggles said, every thing should be continuously safe. One foot in the black one in the green at all times, if you leave your black (safe area) you bring black with you by burning the fuel off between your control line and the fire. The thought of walking cross country threw the green on a going fire with a thunderstorm overhead and no eyes on me and heavy fuels steep terrain is enough to curl my hair.
      If you follow the 10′s and 18 there will still be fatalities from the unforeseen, Helicopters falling out of the sky, rolling rocks, falling trees and heat exhaustion. Perhaps the investigation will uncover what caused them to be so desperate to save those houses.

      • Sue Jorgensen says

        I was trying to think of a comparison of how unusual and deadly the choices were that the Granite Hotshots made were. The only thing I could come up with is this parallel. An engine crew arrives at a well involved commercial structure and is assigned to exposure protection on the C side. The company officer decides instead to take independent action and ladder the roof to ventilate. The roof is laddered and the crew discovers there is a 6 foot parapet wall instead of using another ladder to get down to the roof they just jump down. There is fire showing from the skylights at the rear 1/3 of the building the crew sets off cross country, on the roof, does not sound the roof or cut inspection holes on the way to the cutting site. As they continue across the roof the tar is bubbling under their feet and smoke is issuing up threw the vents and A/C units as they pass them. Hopefully this imagery helps equate the level of danger that they had taken on. May our boys rest in peace knowing that we will carry the lessons learned with us…as with all firefighters while we need to critic and learn from the fallen firefighters mistakes. I humbly realize it can be my turn to pass or fail those tests tomorrow.

      • wildland dozer says

        They were not empty homes. The average age of the home owners was probably 70 and only had 1 to 5 min to get out and that is fact.

  8. Russell Lowes says

    Great article and it is good to see the comments. The media is a check on the government. Thanks to Dougherty, the gov’t investigation will have to be a bit more honest, and perhaps open. The truth is necessary if we are to learn and change our actions. Reports like this are a great service the this process and can help save lives in the future. One thing is for sure. I can say as a former firefighter is this: there were some bad mistakes made here. The truth needs to come out as fully as possible to show what went wrong and how to correct it.

  9. AMANDA says

    This article angers me to no end. Our town if devastated by the loss of these men and to have someone pass the buck by playing the blame game is absolutely horrible! I think before anyone else opens their mouth they need to wait until ALL reports/investigations have been done.

  10. Georgia says

    I do not understand how Mr Dougherty could write this article. There is a team that is overseeing the investigation. How can Mr. Payne make these statements, he was not there, he has no right to state that he knew what was going on in Eric’s mind. I would say that Mr. Payne does not have a heart, to do an interview like this, it is shamefull for him not to consider the families of the fallen hero’s. Mr. Dougherty should also be ashamed of himself to write such an article. I feel he too does not have a heart or a conscious. This was very bad reporting. Mr Dougherty should find a different career..

    • Brian T. Miller says

      Mr. Dougherty is a journalist and it is his job to report, investigate, and verify news stories. The Yarnell Hill tragedy is an important news story for many people, in and out of the fire community. He has every right to try to report on this and I thought he has been informative and fair.

  11. chandera says

    It is sad that daugherty thinks he needs to report something like this…it is obvious there was a mistake or over look…it is not daugherty’s responsibility to shame a dead man…I believe if he or his family was shamed after they made a mistake, he would by someone a vicious as he is being, he would not be happy…you are disgusting john daughery and do not deserve to be in journalism or share your OPINION on such a tragedy.

  12. Ralph Taylor says

    As a Type I Safety Officer for 15 years I was also disappointed in Mr. Payne’s release of his “unofficial” opinion. As we speak an “official” team of experienced and dedicated investigators are recreating this tragic incident second by second. The official investigative report will show what really happened and how these brave men lost their lives. So here is what I do know. These men were working very hard to accomplish their mission, they were dedicated to protecting lives and property, to the man they loved being a hotshot and a wildland firefighter and I know that Superintendent Marsh loved his crew. It broke my heart to hear the news and I grieve for all my fallen brothers and their families.

  13. Andybinga says

    Good writing despite people ignoring the truth. Leading a crew through an unburned area without a lookout or knowing where the fire was is negligence.

    Only five had time to deploy their shake and bakes so they were not aware of the danger till the last minute or two. Only one Pulaski head and one chainsaw bar was found on the scene. I’m taking this as a strong clue that the other hotshots dropped their tools and ran but that has not been verified yet.

    • Dixter says

      Did only five deploy their shelters? Or did they all deploy?
      What I’ve read is that only five were found in their shelters.
      I’ve also read that many of the shelters delaminated and failed.
      So they may have all been in their shelters to start.
      I do with this state employee had kept his opinions to himself. I can’t blame the reporter for writing it once he had the interview.

  14. Chris says

    There is a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking going on in this article and peanut gallery (comment section)! I started wildland firefighting in 1998. In 2006 I was involved in a burn over / fire shelter deployment situation in Nevada. Like the Yarnell Hill incident, my incident involved an unexpected thunder storm and a thunder storm collapse. I don’t care how awesome of a “Fire God” you are! You can not predict if or when a thunder storm cell might or might not collapse and send down drafts irradicaly over a fire area! As a professional wildland firefighter, we are trained to be professional sceptics. But when the power of a thunder storm cell is released, we can not predict how it will play out! I have put myself in Eric’s shoes since I sat at the memorial, and I can’t not honestly say I would have done differently. What I can say, is that I will take every lesson I can from this incident and implement it to make my firefighters and fellow firefighters safe on the fire line. This is how the legacy of the fallen 19 live on!

    • Danny King says

      Chris in all the training I have done in Wild land firefighting I call it “lessons learned”. You are correct the lessons learned by what happened will be the Legacy of the nineteen, God rest their souls.
      What We always called the white paper will show the facts not the speculation, no one knows what the leader was thinking. From My experience (Over 17 years in wild land firefighting in southern Cal., three burn overs, two with My hand crew, I never deployed a shelter) the erratic wind condition was the main factor I am not sure if shelters can be deployed in wind greater than 25 miles per hr.! I heard wind was gusting to 40 m.p.h., then the fire would great even more wind. Some one said drop Your tool and run like hell. This sounds like panic to Me. I see panic as being quickest way to die! Hopefully all the wild land firefighters still in the business can learn and not blame any one, for no one mistake caused this!

  15. Robert says

    And this is the seond Robert. I also stand by what I said.

    In addition to what was stated above – if you have to deploy a fire shelter, someone has messed up. Following the wildland firefighting rules is responsible for saving tens of thousand of lives.

    It was clearly time to safely hang out in your safety zone and wait it out in spite of what Willis said about “no wildland firefighter is satisfied sitting there and watching the fire progress without taking nay action.” Really? This firefighter is and has been perfectly content with that on countless fires.

  16. Robert Plant says

    By coincidence TWO different Roberts posted on this thread. I am the first, and I stand by what I said.

    We do not know what options were available to the crew when the fire blew up. Let us not forget that the crews at Storm King Mountain were fighting fire with one foot in the Black when it blew up. Unfortunately, the burned black had incomplete combustion of aerial fuels in the chaparral fuel type. When the front came over the fire, the burned area re-ignited trapping the crews before they could get over the ridge where others survived.
    This very well could have been the case with the Yarnell Hill Fire. Low intensity fire behavior in Chaparral fuel types often leave significant amounts of aerial fuels that under the right conditions of wind and slope can re-burn with extreme intensity making a safety zone in the black the worst place to be as happened on Storm King Mountain back in 94.
    The passage of the thunderstorm may have totally changed the fire behavior in the incompletely burned chaparral and may have driven the Granite Mountain crew from the apparent blackened safety zone to the place where a fateful decision had to be made … go to the ranch or the highway.

    If it had been my call I would have went down the south facing ridge to Hwy 89, lighter fuels but a longer downhill run to safety. The potential for slops and spots over the ridge were possible but the final perimeter of the fire shows that this was they way out. Drop your tools and run like Hell ….single file tool order be damned …and keep your shelter at your side.

    Been there, done that.

  17. Elizabeth Groom says

    Here are some examples of the “situations that shout watch out” that commonly exist in many firefighting situations. They are not situations that mean stop what you are doing. We still fight fire, even in the presence of these hazards:

    (some of the ) 18 Watch Out Situations
    2. In country not seen in daylight.
    4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior
    9. Building line downhill with fire below.
    10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.
    11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
    13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
    14. Weather gets hotter and drier.
    15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.
    17. Terrain or fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.

    #2 & #4 – We fight fire at night all the time. We arrive at fires at night all the time. We often travel great distances and go straight to work in new unfamiliar terrain. This does not preclude taking action on the fire.
    #9, #10 & #13 – We like to fight fire from the bottom of a hill and work upwards as this is generally a safer approach, but not all fires start at the bottom of the hill. We frequently work across sidehills or make our approach from the top. If a fire is making a run at a road or a housing development, we will sometimes pick a spot out in front of the fire and fight it head on. When necessary, we post extra lookouts; we create berms and trenches alongside fireline on a sidehill to catch rolling material, we light backfires or coordinate airdrops to take the brunt off an approaching head fire or a dangerous spot fire and we assure escape routes are available to those working in dangerous situations.
    #11 & #17 Any time there is no road or trail to a fire, we have to approach it “through the green.” All anchor points are created and all fire line is started by someone who was outside the fire area, and then entered the fire area. Starting from a solid anchor point and constructing direct fireline (one foot in the green, one in the black) is the safest method, but indirect line (away from the fire in the green) is constructed on almost every major wildfire. Sometimes as secondary contingency lines, sometimes as a starting point for a firing operation. All indirect line construction is “in the green” but it is still a commonly used method in appropriate situations. Line construction in heavy fuels or steep and uneven terrain is often required due to the location of the fire. We regularly perform these duties, we just recognize it is more hazardous.
    #14 & #15 Ever been outside on an active fire day? It will be hot and dry and sometimes windy. From the morning to the afternoon it will get hotter and drier and usually windier as the day progresses. These are regular fire conditions and not reasons to abandon a fire fight. Every firefighter is taught to actively observe the weather patterns and changes as a way of monitoring the fire status. These observations don’t require a meteorologist, every firefighter can watch the way the wind blows. These observations assist fire supervisors in adapting the tactics and strategy being used to the constantly changing conditions. When the weather conditions change, our tactics change, we won’t abandon the fireline based on a predicted rise in the temperature or a small change in the wind.

  18. jd says

    While i am disappointed that Mr. Payne released this information prior to the final investigation, i find it more as the State passing the buck. However there is no one left to pass it to. So Eric will be the bad guy in the loss of all of these guys. Robert, i agreed with your 2:06 but then at 4:36, you took the back road and sided with Payne. If you are truly in the fire service, you know the terms but anyone can read an article, I find your second reply no different than what Payne did. Disparage the guys who died trying to save someones home and property.

    Mr. Payne does not seem to have all of his facts in order. He does not know if there were aircraft overhead, but then says that the crew should have made an attempt to contact the lead planes circling the fire. Which is it? The poor guy who survived was the lookout, he stated it, the IC stated it, and until he was overrun would have passed with the crew if he was not taken out of the area.

    This smells as if the state is covering their behinds, when it should have been turned over to a Federal Type 1 IC team rather than a state Type III IC.

    This whole thing stinks, the loss of 19 people, the mental loss of 1 lone survivor, and jumping the gun dumping info on the public before the very same people you asked to come in and investigate has not had the chance to complete their task.

    This is just wrong, PERIOD!!!!

    • Robert says

      As has always been the case at all incidents, the listed Incident Commander-IC- is the one who is responsible for all actions while he/she is in-command. One USFS employee named Roy Hall was the listed IC during the time that the fire blew-up and killed the Hotshots.
      However that is, Mr. Jerry Payne most assuredly should NOT have made the comments that have created THIS “fire storm.” He should be disciplined, ASAP. Let the official investigative document speak first and foremost.

  19. Elizabeth Groom says

    They are called situations that shout “Watch out”. All firefighting involves an element of risk. There is no completely safe way to approach and extinguish a wildfire. Firefighting supervisors are paid to weigh the risks and choose the safest possible methods given the scenario. No two fires are alike and no set of rules can be strictly applied across the board in such a dynamic environment. It is not an accepted philosophy that no one ever breaks the “rules”, rather, we weigh when the risks and benefits are balanced. We are taught to take appropriate actions based on the risks; hence the phrase, “shouts watch out”. If you are in one of the described scenarios, you are in the danger zone, so you take precautions. Firefighters don’t abandon the fight just because one of the “watch out situations” is present.

  20. tek9tim says

    THIS. This article is exactly the type of fire fatality investigation that has been abandoned after the adoption of Doctrine. (Don’t know? Look it up) Using information with the long view of hindsight to hang fire leaders is a complete waste of time. The only fair way to look at what happened is in a chronological manner by people of equal experience of those involved with only the information that the leaders had as the situation evolved. Just a guess, but I’m betting the author of this article is not qualified as a division supervisor, nor task force leader, nor crew boss, nor squad boss, nor even firefighter type 2.

    Why didn’t they have a lookout in place when they got burned over? Because he went out his escape route to avoid being burned over. Had he stayed in place to satisfy the checkmark of having a lookout, there would have been 20 fatalities instead of 19.

  21. Robert says

    It’s about time that this side of the story came out into the open. Those of us that fight wildland fires as a profession know very well that they messed up fatally. This was blatantly obvious from the start, even without an investigation team. You MUST fight fires by the rules every time, every fire, no exceptions compared to what has recently been stated by Prescott Wildland Chief Darrel Willis and Jim Paxon. These rules include LCES, the 10 Fire Orders, the 18 Watch Out Situations, the Downhill Checklist, and a few others that should be memorized and applied every time. There were at least half of the Common Denominators of Tragedy Fires in place on this fire as well.

    They were in a perfectly good black safety zone at 4:04 based on a cell phone text photo and radio transmissions. Their lookout had to vacate his post shortly after that because of hitting a “trigger point.” Fire overran this abandoned lookout post within 3-4 minutes after he was retrieved by the Blue Ridge Hot Shot Supt. in a UTV. With all the weather and fire behavior factors in alignment, the Granite Mountain Hot Shots then left their safety zone (“the black”) about 4:30. THEY DID NOT LEAVE A LOOKOUT AS REQUIRED so they had nobody to warn them of the approaching danger. They then travelled down through the green (unburned) and into a bowl (box canyon) – a deadly maneuver almost anytime under those conditions. The only time to leave a good safety zone is when weather conditions are favorable, e.g. NO WIND, cool temperatures, and/or high humidity, in other words no radical fire behavior. So, the “obviously they did it because they thought is was their best option at the time” statement is clearly out of line here based on the above and based on their training and experience. They knew better.

    Hopefully, the Investigative Report will conclude the same. One never knows because the authorizing Agency gets to approve/disapprove the Investigation Team’s findings before it is released. Thank you for the article and the good reporting.

    • SWADIVS says

      Your an idiot just like Mr. Payne—-hindsight genius…you must be a “professional” firefighter for the state, cause no one that’s been in the brush country on a crew would speak such crap

      • seymour says

        How is it that you call me an “idiot” for citing the rules of firefighting? You are the one that claims to be a Southwest Area Division Supervisor, so it sounds like either you don’t know the rules or fight fire without following them with your ridiculous statement. You are the “idiot.”

        I am not a “professional” firefighter from the state, however, I have spent many years as a Hot Shot and I am well versed in fighting fire in the “brush country” and throughout the US. I have never deployed a fire shelter on any fire nor has anyone on my Crew. If you deploy your shelter on a fire, then someone has messed up. Unfortunately, these guys really messed up.

        I grieve daily for the family, friends, and loved ones for those that lost the same.

        • Julie says

          HINDSIGHT is 20/20. You weren’t there, you dont know why Eric did what he did…you are an idiot becuase you are jumping to conclusions without any first hand knowledge of the Yarnell Hill Fire. But of course everyone will blame Eric…hes no here to defend himself from the politics of a municipal hotshot team and their cronies.

      • Robert says

        How is it that you call me an “idiot” for citing the required rules of firefighting? You are the one that claims to be a Southwest Area Division Supervisor, so it sounds like either you don’t know the rules or fight fire without following them with your ridiculous statement. Either way, you are the “idiot.” To make the statements you made in the position you hold scares me.

        I am not a “professional” firefighter from the state, however, I have spent many years as a Hot Shot and I am well versed in fighting fire in the “brush country” and throughout the US. I have never deployed a fire shelter on any fire nor has anyone that I have supervised. If you deploy your shelter on a fire, then someone has messed up. Fighting fire by the rules (LCES, 10, 18, etc.) is responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives. These guys were not fighting fire by the rules and they really messed up. How can you come to any other conclusion?

        I knew these guys very well. I grieve daily for the family, friends, and loved ones for those that lost the same – and for those that were involved in the incident. I go to bed thinking about them and wake up thinking about them. However, we can honor them by critically evaluating what they did and didn’t do and learn from it.

      • IHC18 says

        I am a Hotshot Superintendent and I would not have never walked through the green with my crew. Eric made a mistake plain and simple. Calculated risk is a slippery slope to go down. Calculated is a bit like gambling. There is enough risk just being on the line.

        This is not “arm chair quarterback” it’s recognizing the mistakes made so not to repeat.

    • George says

      Thank you Robert. Thank you for saying what almost nobody else has the intestinal fortitude to say by stating the obvious about this tragedy. The time for being politically correct is done. The funerals are over, it’s time to take a good honest look at what happened so the wildland fire community can learn from the gross mistakes made at Yarnell. Those 19 men can’t come back, but maybe the lessons learned will be burned into people minds for generations and a similar tragedy will be averted by someone at the right time and place saying, “No, I’m not going down there.”

      As more information comes out, it’s difficult to believe what transpired that day. The term, “calculated risk” just doesn’t work for me. At least not as implied in this instance. Anybody with a serious Operations background, especially Crews, can clearly see this tragedy should have never happened. They should of never left the black. Not with a storm cell over head. Not to go downhill into a box canyon, through brush over their heads. Not without informing somebody of their plan & their route. Not without a new lookout. Not to travel to a location they didn’t need to go to.

      If I was the Div Supe, and I decided to hike to a location (the Ranch) 2 miles (before the blow up) away from the active fire front at the time I made that decision, I believe I’d have been abandoning my area. Every time the Superintendent was Div Supe on HS Crews I was on, he didn’t stay with the Crew. He went to a location from where he could see the main fire.

      I’d like to think that Mr Marsh was probably the kind of leader who would want the fire community to point out his mistakes and learn from them. Not to call it second guessing, or arm-chair quarterbacking, or hindsight is 20/20. It’s true that we have all made mistakes. The difference is that the vast majority of us have gotten away with those mistakes. We were lucky.

      From here on out, there legacy within the wildland fire community needs to be about what can be learn from this. There legacy can be whatever their families want it to be outside the inner circle of firefighters.

  22. Robert says

    I think it is really irresponsible for Mr. Payne to release this information prior to completion of the formal agency investigation, especially since his agency is the lead agency in the investigation. Putting the blame on anyone at this point is premature especially since the formal investigation is to be completed in just 30 days. We do not know what factors influenced the crew leadership to lead them down into the box canyon but obviously they did it because they thought is was their best option at the time. Unfortunately as we now know … it was the most dangerous.

    • Wayne Logan says

      Mr. Payne is answering questions honestly, based on his years of experience and expertise on the matter. If he said nothing he would also be criticized. The expression of these opinions do not preclude a thorough examination of this incident. This is a horrible circumstance. At this point we can only hope to learn from this tragedy and see that it never happens again, so much as is possible. We owe it to the memories of those brave firefighters.

    • Sue Jorgensen says

      Payne’s agency is not doing the investigation it is an Inter-Agency task force which will release findings to State, Prescott and the families.

  23. says

    Excellent Reporting by John Dougherty. So many questions left to be answered. But it is also important to remember that there are no BAD guys in this horrific scenario. The last thing Eric Marsh would have dreamed of doing was putting his men and himself at risk. No villains, only humans trying to do what they believe is right.

  24. Barbara Maack says

    Great reporting. Horrifying story. I wonder if Marsh or Steed were aware that McDonough had left his position?

  25. Kaylar4 says

    You wrote: “We are now investigating this fire to clear up the firestorm this garbage article started.” The investigation was opened the day after the incident occurred and NOT, as you state, because of this article, which was posted on July 30th — a full month after the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed. Articles like this one are a necessary pathway to the truth — and the truth isn’t always what we want it to be. In this case, the truth is that mistakes were made and 19 fine men died tragically. Lying about the reasons for investigating this fire just muddies the situation…

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