Prescott Wildlands Division Chief Darrell Willis demands retraction of Granite Mountain Hotshot story

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After refusing to answer written questions or to be interviewed before publication of the New Times August 22 cover story, “Lambs to Slaughter,” about the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain firefighters, Prescott hotshots boss Darrell Willis sent New Times a letter containing what he claims are 22 inaccuracies in the article.

InvestigativeMEDIA’s editor John Dougherty wrote the story for Phoenix New Times and the article also appears on this website. The New Times responded to Willis’ claims with an extraordinary Sept. 10 story published on its website. Dougherty contributed to the New Times’ article responding to Willis’ claims.

The New Times story corrects three minor errors in the Aug. 22 article and New Times rejected Willis’ request for a sweeping retraction of the conclusions and opinions expressed in the story. InvestigativeMEDIA appreciates New Times continued support and confidence in the reporting.

An excerpt from the New Times Sept. 10 article follows:

“Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, and City Attorney Jon Paladini didn’t respond to our communications seeking comment before publication, nor did the state Forestry Division respond to questions concerning its assignment of the hotshots, operated by Prescott, to the Yarnell Hill Fire.

After publication, Willis and the state identified three factual errors in New Times’ interpretation of public records.

The errors don’t change fundamental premises of the story: The Granite Mountain Hotshots failed to meet minimum hotshot standards, federal officials initially refused to dispatch the crew to Yarnell, the state failed to contain what was at first a small fire through its slow and ineffective response, and former hotshot superintendents and a former wildfire accident investigator raised serious concerns over the crew’s apparent priority of placing structure protection ahead of its own safety.

Consequently, New Times stands by the author’s reporting in this article, which was based upon public records available at the time of publication. We decline Chief Willis’ request to retract conclusions and opinions drawn in “Lambs to Slaughter.”

New Times corrected two errors in our August 29 edition, which are attached to the cover story online. The article stated that Willis, whom the crew worked directly under, had no wildland firefighting experience as a member of a hotshot crew, when he does. And the article mistakenly says ALB was the designation of the federal Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which dispatches firefighting crews in Arizona and New Mexico. Willis states in his letter that ALB is the initials of a person who worked at the SWCC. The state Forestry Division, however, recently said ALB is the initials of a person not affiliated with the SWCC. ABQ is the correct designation for Albuquerque.

The SWCC comes up prominently in the story because the federal office told the state Forestry Division that it had only the Blue Ridge Hotshots available for the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, in response to the state’s request for two hotshot crews (see highlight section on pages seven, eight, and nine). Though the SWCC has declined to comment since the tragedy, the center’s initial refusal to authorize sending the Granite Mountain Hotshots appears based on the amount of time the crew had spent working that month. Sunday, June 30, was the crew’s scheduled day off and was its 28th work day that month. The state e-mailed the “resource order” directly to Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh ordering the crew to report to Yarnell.

According to Prescott records obtained September 3, New Times made a third error. The cover story says Marsh was in the field with his crew at Yarnell for the first time this fire season since he was placed on light duty April 18. But the recently released records show that Marsh worked on the Doce Fire from June 18 to 25, the West Spruce Fire on June 28, and the Mt. Josh Fire on June 29.”

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

Comments

  1. Robert (Bob) Powers says

    Mr. Willis is somewhat wrong in assuming that the sun valley fires structure protection was assigned to hot shots and hand crews. structure protection was assigned to Engine crews the hand crews were building line and clearing defensible areas around structures. All of the Hot Shot crews on the Fire were assigned to line construction. Engine crews from several Structure Fire units (ie Hailey, Ketchum, Twin Falls, and other munisapalities) thru out Idaho, were stationed in areas to protect the homes should the fires get to them, Greenhorn gulch and Baker creek. I was in Fire Management for 33 Years from Firefighter, Engine supervisor, Hot shot Foreman and Asst. Superintendent Oak Grove Hot Shots 1970,1972, & 1973
    worked my way up to an IC Type II ended my career as a Forest Dispatcher on the Sawtooth N.F. , and live in Twin Falls just south of Sun Valley. Structure Fire protection is always assigned to Engine co. with that training. You are confusing fuel removal and line construction with keeping a structure from burning which only an engine with water can do not a hand crew. Being retired from Fire dose not mean we some how lost all of our training and experance and can no longer understand Wildland Fire Suppression the Basics have’nt changed in 70 years.

  2. g. parson says

    Willis is now blaming the Forest Service for not sending air tankers (abcnews). He’s painted himself into a corner – and is running out of excuses. You know, Mr. “Christian” – it’s a sin to lie.

  3. Gary Olson says

    Oh, and I forgot the Prescott City Manager. What do you think, Mr. Prescott City Manager? Do you think Darrell Willis’ hole is deep enough, or should he keep digging?

  4. Gary Olson says

    Yes, I agree, Darrell Willis should shut his pie hole. If the Mayor of Prescott, the Chief of the Prescott Fire Department and the city attorney hasn’t got that across to him by now, I bet they do tomorrow morning.

    I don’t have to worry about defamation of character until Darrell Willis can prove a wildland firefighter with a hand crew should run into empty burning buildings equipped with a shovel, but without a Scott air pack and all of the other standard equipment and support that comes with every structural firefighter.

    • United not Divided says

      Enough! Enough finger pointing, mud-slinging, and name calling. None of it will bring these brave men back to us, and it is all counterproductive! When I read through these posts (and those in similar articles), I see one common thread…hurt. We are all hurting from this tragic event and lashing out at one another seems to be a common way of coping. But criticizing colleagues, coworkers, and friends is no way to deal with such insurmountable loss. We all loved and admired these men. We are all struggling with their loss and handling those emotions differently. I am not defending any particular individual or condoning any specific remark, but as a firefighting community, we cannot let those emotions divide us. Stop blaming one another and start working together to make firefighting as safe as possible. Stop tearing each other down in grief and sorrow; instead lift one another up through encouragement and support. Let’s start acting in a way that would make them proud of us and honor their memory.

  5. Rod Wrench says

    The City of Prescott needs to put a muzzle on this guy if they know what’s good for them. They are already in deep do do and it is only going to get deeper.

  6. Gary Olson says

    PS, and keep your personal religious beliefs and fervor out of this, I am a Christian as well, but this country would not tolerate a Muslim saying Allāhu Akbar or any other similar phrase in regards to this incident, and I do not have any tolerance for you invoking God’s Will in this incident either. This horrific event was not God’s Will, this disaster was man made.

  7. Rod Wrench says

    Chief Willis, in my 30 years with the USFS, 3 years as a Hot Shot foreman & 4 as a Hot Shot superintendent on 2 Inter-Regional crews and 17 years as a chief officer, I dealt with all level of chiefs from Cal Fire, L.A. County, Riverside County, L.A. City, San Bernardino City, just to name a few, and I never heard such B.S. come out of a chief officers pie hole that I’ve heard come from yours in your outrageous video and now your back peddling comments to PYA. You claim 22 inaccuracies in the reporting article, well chief me and my TRUE wildland firefighting brothers can give you 22 violations of the 10 Std. FF Orders and 18 Situations to Shout Watch Out that were violated , and there are only 28 total. This does not take in account any lack of training and heads up common sense decision making that you and your Hot Shot overhead failed to perform. Gary Olsen is right, your wildland firefighting philosophy is flawed and way out of reasonable expectations of a hand crew. Get this chief, hand crews DO NOT engage in structural fire protection, period!! Their job is to construct line, burn out, back fire, help lay hose up the line and go where no others dare to go aggressively and safely. God had nothing to do with this tragedy, it was human error based on a fatal wrong decision. Quit beating your chest, shut your pie hole and get out while you can.

  8. Gary Olson says

    Darrell, all anyone has to do, is to go back and review all of the statements you made at the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial and in the interview you gave out at the site.

    The arrogance and the complete ignorance of your statements not only staggered me, but made me very angry, the more you talked, the angrier I got. And I still am.

    Your philosophies regarding structural firefighting and the duties you espoused for wildland firefighting hand crews in structural firefighting demonstrates a complete lack of understanding and comprehension of sound wildland firefighting principles and tactics.

    Do you really think that just because you went out as a ride-a-long with the crew a few times, you have hotshot experience? That means I have jet fighter pilot experience because I watched the Blue Angels fly a few times.

    Your deeply flawed values in regards to the role wildland firefighting hand crew should play in structural firefighting were either responsible for the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots…or they never listened to you…take your pick. You bought it…you own it…deal with it, but please don’t do it again.

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