Twelve Granite Mountain Hotshot Families File Wrongful Death Claims Seeking $237.5 Million

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By John Dougherty

The families of 12 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots killed on June 30 in the Yarnell Hill Fire today filed notice of claims with the city of Prescott, Central Yavapai County Fire District, the Arizona Forestry Division, Yavapai County and four fire commanders seeking $237.5 million in damages.

On July 3, Investigators inspect the location where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were entrapped by flames three days earlier.

Investigators on July 3 inspect the location where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were entrapped by flames four days earlier. (Photo: Arizona State Forestry Division)

Prescott attorney Thomas Kelly, who once served as assistant superintendent of the Prescott Hotshots, filed the claims on behalf of the families that includes several of the crew’s most experienced members including Granite Mountain Hotshot Captain Jesse Steed.

The claims name four fire commanders who were working under the state’s direction on June 30: Roy Hall, incident commander, Arizona State Forestry Division; Russ Shumate, incident commander, Arizona State Forestry Division; Todd Abel, field operations chief, Central Yavapai Fire District; and Darrell Willis, Wildlands Division Chief, Prescott Fire Department.

The families of the following Granite Mountain Hotshots filed the claims:

Andrew Ashcraft, Robert Caldwell, Travis Carter, Christopher MacKenzie, Grant McKee, Wade Parker, John Percin, Jesse Steed, Travis Turbyfill, Kevin Woyjeck, William Warneke and Clayton Whitted.

The amount of damages sought varies depending on the number of survivors and ranges from $50 million for Ashcraft who leaves a wife and four children to $5 million on behalf of McKee’s father.

The claimants also seek non-monetary damages “from those who caused this travesty…so that history will not repeat itself.” The compensation sought includes:

  • Adopting necessary policy, procedural and protocol changes in state and local government fire suppression agencies to ensure the safety of firefighters during future wildland fires in Arizona.
  • Adopting, incorporating, and funding specific safety standards and equipment to enhance the protection of wildland firefighters during future wildland fire suppression efforts in Arizona.
  • Developing and funding an educational program with its curriculum outlining the environmental and human factors causing the death of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew on the Yarnell Hill Fire and further, provide adequate funding for its presentation to current and future wildland firefighters in Arizona on a yearly basis.
  • Funding annual scholarships for individuals in need of financial assistance to undergo wildland fire suppression training and education in the name of claimants’ decedents and their fallen colleagues.

The claims are identical except for the personal descriptions of each hotshot and his family relationships. The claims list 31 “willful, reckless, negligent and careless acts” that contributed to the “wrongful” deaths of the 19 hotshots.

The claims state that families “will participate in good faith mediation to explore alternative compensation models, including non-monetary compensation to settle all claims resulting from the intentional, willful, reckless, careless and negligent acts of the City of Prescott, Yavapai County, Central Yavapai Fire District and State of Arizona.”

The alleged negligent acts cover the period from the start of the fire at about 5:30 p.m., Friday, June 28 through about an hour leading up to the fatal  entrapment when an airborne supervisor “left the fire without explanation” and did not provide the location of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to another airborne supervisor who was just arriving on the scene.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots left a burned-over safe zone on a mountain ridge above the town of Yarnell sometime after 4 p.m. as a powerful thunderstorm approached from the northeast and the fire was moving towards the high-desert town. The crew descended into a chaparral-choked box canyon where the 19 men were entrapped at about 4:45 p.m. by a rapidly approaching 2,000-degree firestorm.

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

Comments

  1. Gary Olson says

    John Dougherty,

    I’m sorry John, I really did try to be positive about the interviews conducted by the SAIT, but “you really suck” was absolutely the most positive thing I could say about their work.

    I mean really…please don’t take my word for it, go review them for yourself, I just did, it was shockingly poor work. What did you use Jim Karels, a Big Chief notebook and a Crayola crayon to keep notes on…pathetic? Did the people who wrote them up for you have any formal educational training beyond the 6th grade?

    http://www.azcentral.com/ic/pdf/1213-yarnell-interview-notes.pdf

  2. Gary Olson says

    OK, I just want to throw this out there for the “Whatever it’s worth” category. And I know I haven’t been on the fire line since 1984, or involved with wildfire since 1988, and things have really changed, it’s a brave new world out there, and people like me JUST DON’T GET IT. But.

    We (the Happy Jack Hotshots) used to hold all of our staff rides and study our lessons learned at the Mormon Lake Lodge on a Saturday night (our days off were in the middle of the week) which meant Sundays were traditionally light physical training days, yes, we still ran the 1.5 miles through the woods on the dirt road, jumping over the cattle guards, but there were fewer calisthenics, a few volleyball games (which were strictly forbidden because nobody wanted to process a CA-1 on the job injury report, so we engaged in our own version of don’t ask/don’t tell) and it was a “camp day”, which was spent on the USFS compound doing weekly chores, but forgive me, I digress.

    We (the Santa Fe Hotshots) held all of our staff rides, and studied our lessons learned at the Green Onion in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Saturday nights, and immediately after every fire (while still wearing our fire clothes, the management and the waitresses there loved us), and almost every other night in between.

    Most wildland firefighters like to tell stories and hear stories, as long as they are about wildfires, the last fire, the next fire, or any other fire. And the relative merits of White’s fire boots versus Nick’s fire boots. And how about those Redwing boots? All the rookies wear them, and they really suck. Danner boots are okay…I guess, but White’s are the best, no question.

    You know…your typical and topical stories that can hold the interest of wildland firefighters. Do you think I’m kidding? This video showed up a few weeks ago on my You Tube channel because Google thought I might want to watch it because of other selections I have made, http://youtu.be/qjcJ_LP6zzE, as it turns out, there are a lot more videos just like it. It IS a brave new world.

    So…it is safe to say that if you count all of the fires I was on during my ten years as a hotshot and my 4 years in fire coordination/operation centers (all over the country), I think it is safe to say I have been on a LOT OF FIRES. Some in real time…and some vicariously through others.

    So…here comes my point. Do you want to know what the craziest story I have ever heard (or virtually experienced) as a wildland firefighter (rhetorical question) is? Excluding what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire, which of course holds all of the records, hands down. If you have read some of my earlier comments, you might take a guess and say it was from the Battlement Creek Fire, but you would be wrong, what happened there was perfectly understandable. No, the craziest story I have ever heard came from the Yarnell Hill Fire.

    It seems that there was this second year kid out there wandering around by himself, not sure what to do, almost in the middle of a fire storm of Biblical proportions, causally evaluating places where he could deploy a fire shelter that would most likely not have been survivable given the flame lengths and the temperatures that were being generated by the Yarnell Hill Fire. In case any of you are wondering out there in cyber space…that is really some CRAZY ****!

    I have also said in an earlier comment that wildland firefighters do not need better fire shelters, i.e., BULKIER AND HEAVIER fire shelters to hump up and down the mountains along with all of the other stuff they have to carry (you don’t get to put your backpacks down while you are bent over doing endless hours of backbreaking work, they stay on you and water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon). Wildland firefighters need to stop working ABOVE and in front of uncontrolled wildfires. The point of a fire shelter is that it is never, never, never, ever supposed to be used.

    Now I know my years (1974 – 1976, no shelters, 1977 – 1988, all fire shelters) were split between no fire shelters and mandatory fire shelters, but…as a reference point, I never personally knew anybody who deployed or even thought about deploying a fire shelter. And in the past few years, there has literally been hundreds of them…I think, jump in here and correct me, any of you current wildland firefighters.

    We, the Happy Jack Hotshots, were on the Ship Island Creek Fire of 1979, in Idaho, when 2 overhead were burned over in their fire shelters and killed, but I didn’t know them. And 1976 was a transition year. We were issued them when we went to Region 5 (California), but we threw them in the bushes just after leaving fire camp and put our lunches, ponchos or jackets in their HUGE (the first fire shelters were really heavy and bulky, which firefighters bitched about non-stop) pouches. Some guys kept them to roll up in like space blankets while sleeping on the ground in spike camps (which looked pretty funny in the morning), but you couldn’t let the overhead see that, plus they were really hard to fold up again, so I never tried it, I just threw mine away. I didn’t believe it would save me anyway, and it was REALLY BULKY AND HEAVY!

    There was even an “old school” smokejumper on the South Canyon Fire when it blew up who wasn’t carrying a fire shelter, because he didn’t believe in them (WHICH IS A HUGE NO-NO, ALL WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS MUST CARRY THEM AT ALL TIMES, EVEN AFTER THE FIRE IS OUT AND THEY ARE MOPPING IT UP, INCLUDING CON CREWS, THEY ARE WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS TOO, 6 OF THEM WERE BURNED OVER AND KILLED ON THE DUDE FIRE HERE IN ARIZONA, 1990) which is probably a common practice among smokejumpers, who I stated in an earlier comment, more or less supervise themselves, more or less most of the time, on their little fires more or less in the middle of nowhere. Plus they are more or less like Gods themselves anyway. So…back to the fire, he just walked over and waited out the fire storm in a big pile of rocks while 14 firefighters who were carrying fire shelters died, more or less in front of him. Life isn’t fair.

    So, I want to say again…having a second year kid wandering around like
    McDonough was…IS REALLY A CRAZY STORY! Here is another rhetorical question. Do you know what the second wildest story I have ever heard (or experienced) is, once again, excluding what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots?

    It comes from the Yarnell Hill Fire as well, and the ADOSH report. The ADOSH report states in part, “Cordes reported that two engines working Shrine Road got “pinched.” The crews had hiked in to work the dozer line at Division Z, and when they returned, their vehicles were missing. Cordes believed that a water tender operator had previously moved their vehicles to a safer location without the engine crew’s knowledge.” So…we had engine crews out there wandering around in the MIDDLE OF A FIRE STORM OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS ON FOOT, WHO THOUGHT THEIR ENGINES HAD BEEN STOLEN RIGHT WHEN THEY NEEDED TO DI DI MAU, MOST RICKY-TICK!

    Truthfully, the ADAOSH report is full of almost unbelievable situations, from crews driving through the ash and smoke, to elderly residents running out of their homes a few minutes before the flaming fire front reached them, to a Division Supervisor who apparently just decided to pull up his pants, leave the fire line, and go somewhere else?

    When I first heard about the Yarnell Hill Fire, I was in shock and disbelief that 19 hotshots were dead. Now I am in shock and disbelief that 119 wildland firefighters aren’t dead, plus at least that many more residents of Glen Ilah and Yarnell! WE REALLY GOT LUCKY THAT DAY!

    At least now I know why the Serious Accident Investigation Team ruled there was no harm, and therefore no foul on the Yarnell Hill Fire. Every time they tried to plot something on their charts…IT WAS OFF THE CHARTS! They had to go home and to make new charts, and now, they are just hoping everyone will forget about that fire and move on…just like they did!

    So…if this is the new “normal”, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) doesn’t need to sit down and develop a staff ride with lessons learned for the Yarnell Hill Fire, they need to sit down and develop entirely new training manuals for all wildland firefighters…from scratch.

    Just think about it for a minute. It has been written about somewhere that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had a poster up at their headquarters, which asked something about, “How’s Your Situational Awareness Today?” I think that poster had two extreme examples on it…the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 with 13 wildland firefighters dead, and the South Canyon Fire of 1994 with 14 wildland firefighters dead. At a minimum, the NWCG is going to have to make new posters showing the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013…WITH 19 WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS DEAD, ALL OF THEM HOTSHOTS, YOU KNOW…THE BEST OF THE BEST!

    So…eventually, I would like to read some discussion regarding, “What The Hell Happened On The Yarnell Hill Fire?” I mean, I am the one who said I think Roy Hall has a well deserved reputation as a wildland firefighting Incident Commander (even is he is a ****), Paul Musser had at least 10 years as a hotshot superintendent, on the forest where I was pumped full of hubris, the Mighty Coconino, and if Mr. Musser was a hotshot superintendent on the Coconino National Forest…well, enough said. I casually know Glen Joki from my time with the BLM, and I know he has many years both fighting and managing fires similar to the Yarnell Hill Fire, and I never heard anything bad about him. And from my experience you always hear the bad stuff about somebody right away, but not necessarily the good things.

    And furthermore, since this team was assembled by the Arizona State Forestry, who apparently had their pick from current wildland firefighting employees AND retirees (I think Paul Musser is retired, in addition to Roy Hall). I am also going to assume that Mr. Todd Able is good at his job as well. So…if this great team was making all of the primary decisions on the Yarnell Hill Fire, why did it go so horribly wrong, according to the ADOSH report, and all other anecdotal evidence? And that is not even counting what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who by the way, apparently had extremely experienced, savvy, squared away, highly trained and no nonsense crew leaders.

    For example, it appears the evacuation was called very late in the day, which apparently almost directly caused the deaths of area residents, what the hell happened? And just in case anybody thinks I do not have the right to ask such a question or do not need to know that information. YOU ARE WRONG, ALL OF THE CIVIL SERVANTS WHO WORKED ON THE YARENELL HILL FIRE WORKED FOR US, THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, AND IT IS IN OUR BEST INTERESTS TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED. WE ARE ALSO GOING TO PAY ALL OF THE COSTS FROM THE FIRE, DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY! SO…WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED ON THE YARNELL HILL FIRE?

    And just in case anybody thinks that is going to come out in court during the lawsuits…it won’t. Neither side is going to let those cases go to a trial court, there will be settlements long before that happens. And the families will get more money than they would have otherwise, but not nearly as much as they want, much less deserve. End of story. Oh, by the way, I hope all of you had a Merry Christmas, I know I did.

    • Gary Olson says

      And by “discussion”, I meant “official discussion”, from somebody, NWCG perhaps? You like to roll in it on the good days, how about the bad ones?

      • J. Stout says

        Gary Olson, my instincts tell me that you (perhaps along with a few others like yourself) know already what the answers are to “What the hell happened on the Yarnell Hill Fire?” However, you are also discernably smart enough to know that it’s going to take a whole lot of people in lots of places asking the question ‘what the hell happened’ — they have to “care” about the question ‘what the hell happened’ — or else the answers, when they arrive, will not have any value.

  3. Eric says

    Does anyone know where the interview notes can be found on the internet.
    The AZ Central site no longer seems to have the PDF link?

    • mike says

      I checked just now, you can get them there. Go to azcentral. Type in “yarnell interview” in the search box. Scroll through the results. There will be one (may be on page 2) that mentions Abel interviewed by Karels. PDF will be part of the address. Click on it and all the interview notes will come up.

  4. Calvin says

    In the immediate area of the deployment site (which appears to have been somewhat of a clearing) was there a lot of grass or other undergrowth, or was it basically all sand/rock?

    • sonny says

      the easiest way to explain this is the people are facing towards the east and to the right below the pink ribbon would head to the Helm’s and above the pink ribbon in the distance not seen in photo is Sesame Street area

      • Calvin says

        Thanks Mr Gilligan. If you click once on the image it will enlarge. It looks like there is a road/ jeep trail. It appears just to the right above the inspector that is bent over. Then it looks like the jeep trail(?) parallels the pink ribbon moving to the right. Is that the jeep trail that connects Boulder Springs to Sesame.
        Is the mound on the left of picture part of the ridge that is reported to have blocked GM view of the fire?
        Thanks Again

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