By John Dougherty
|Illustration Kyle T. Webster|
“We are going to hallowed ground,” says Jim Paxon, spokesman for the Arizona Forestry Division, moments before leading reporters and TV crews to the site where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a June 30 wildfire.
“They are almost superhuman,” Paxon drawls to reporters gathered on the morning of July 23. “As we go up there, there’s a Granite Mountain Hotshots shirt on a cactus. We would ask that you touch the shirt … in reverence to the loss.”
Paxon chokes up and begins describing a fissure in a granite boulder forming a cross that flanks the site where the men were incinerated by a mammoth, manzanita-fueled blowtorch. Among wildland firefighters, the oily plant is well known for its explosive characteristics. The fire was so hot that it caused some of the granite boulders to crack.
“This crew was extremely faith-based, and they operated in the joy of life, and that is one of the ways we want to remember them,” Paxon says.
A somber press corps hikes about 600 yards from a ranch house left unscathed by the Yarnell Hill Fire, thanks to large clearings on its perimeter that robbed the fire of fuel.
Where once stood a near-impenetrable tangle of high-desert brush, collectively called “chaparral,” only blackened earth and a few charred stumps remain. Ahead is a chain-link fence surrounding the site where the men met their fate at the base of a U-shaped canyon opening to the east.
Ten yards in front of the fence, Darrell Willis awaits the press. Dressed in a black Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt and wearing sunglasses, Willis is the Prescott Fire Department’s Wildland Division chief and the direct supervisor of the nation’s only municipal-based hotshot crew. Nearly all the rest of the 108 hotshot crews are attached to federal land-management agencies, with most operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
Willis has worked for the Prescott Fire Department since 1985 and retired as its fire chief in 2007. He was rehired the same year to a $123,000-a-year position as Prescott’s emergency services director. Willis took over as Wildland Division chief in 2010, at $90,000 a year. He had no experience as a hotshot and was not a member of the Granite Mountain crew he oversaw.
TV crews hook up microphones to Willis’ shirt as photographers fan out to take the first pictures of what wildland firefighters call the “deployment site.” This is where at least some of the hotshots, in a desperate attempt to survive the charging inferno, opened their thin aluminum mini-tent fire shelters and climbed under them, pushing their faces deep into the dirt in the hope of finding cool air as the 500-degree-plus fire approached. Only four or five of the men’s bodies were found in the shelters, police reports state.
With the microphones attached, a score of cameras ready, and the national press — including correspondents from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — poised, Willis begins a 15-minute monologue describing what he believes happened on that afternoon, when America’s tight-knit National Interagency Fire Center hotshot crews suffered their biggest disaster in the network’s 66-plus-year history.
Willis’ controversial explanation of what led his crew into a dense thicket, as a powerful thunderstorm blasting winds of more than 40 miles per hour rapidly approached, has triggered intense debate in the hotshot world, despite his trying to block such inquiry.
“The voice of what actually happened, we’ll never know,” Willis says. “We’re not going to have that information from [the dead men].”
Willis continues, “It was just one of those things that happened. You can call it an accident. I just say that God had a different plan for that crew at this time.”
Invocation of a spiritual cause for the hotshots’ deaths has triggered sharp criticism from former wildland firefighters interviewed for this story.
“If you accept that this horrific catastrophe — unprecedented in the history of hotshots — is because God had a different plan for those 19 men, then you’re not going to go beyond God’s will for causal factors, and that means you’re going to leave the door open for this to happen again,” says Gary Olson, a former superintendent of Coconino National Forest’s Happy Jack Hotshots, founder of the Santa Fe Hotshots, and, later, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management criminal investigator.
Increasing evidence reveals that reasons far from supernatural contributed to the tragic deaths of 19 of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Dispatch logs show that the Granite Mountain crew should not have been deployed to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire. The federal Southwest Coordinating Center in Albuquerque — in charge of dispatching hotshot crews based in Arizona and New Mexico — refused Arizona’s repeated requests to send the unit to Yarnell.
Granite Mountain already had been on grueling assignments in New Mexico and, upon returning to Prescott in mid-June, immediately was sent out to fight the Doce Fire that was ignited in the Granite Mountain Wilderness on June 18.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots may have reached the maximum consecutive days for work before mandatory time off was required, although officials at the SWCC have declined to confirm or deny that or otherwise comment on why they turned down Arizona’s requests.
Despite the refusal by the SWCC, records show, the state contacted Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh directly via e-mail on the evening of June 29 and requested that the crew proceed to Yarnell the next morning. The state Forestry Division declined to comment when asked whether it circumvented the SWCC by sending the dispatch order directly to Marsh.
Prescott Fire Department officials, including Wildland Division chief Willis, also wouldn’t comment on this point.
Before the Granite Mountain Hotshots even approached Yarnell Hill, a substantial amount of information shows, serious problems already had engulfed the crew. The personnel-related matters call into question whether the crew met minimum hotshot qualifications.
The systemic crisis gripping an overworked crew — along with its baffling decision to leave a safe zone and move down a canyon through a treacherous, 10-foot-high thicket of unburned fuel toward a rapidly approaching wildfire — has raised fundamental questions about whether the nation’s only hotshot crew attached to a municipal fire department was a blueprint for disaster.
There’s a profound difference between fighting wildfires with chainsaws and shovels and riding firetrucks to rescue burning buildings, then blasting water on flames.
Hotshots clear fire breaks with chainsaws, shovel dirt to put out fires, and often start fires to burn out fuel — fighting fire with fire. Their primary focus is bringing wildfires under control, not providing protection for homes and structures.
“The fire does what it wants to do,” explains Rod Wrench, a former member of the Del Rosa Hotshots and superintendent of the Little Tujunga Hotshots, both from California. “Until the weather changes or the fuel changes or the terrain changes, there isn’t much you can do.”
The Prescott Fire Department has attempted to blend wildfire fighting and structural protection, two radically different concepts, inside one agency. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the city already is discussing reforming the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew for next season — an idea some former hotshots find appalling.
“The absolute worst outcome from this horrible event is for the city of Prescott to get another crew,” expert Gary Olson says at his Flagstaff home.
“You just killed everyone on the last one,” he says of the Prescott Fire Department. “That has never happened in the history of wildland firefighting. And now you want to get another one?”
As Prescott struggles to recover from a disaster that has shaken the city to its core — as a makeshift memorial surrounding the Granite Mountain Hotshots headquarters in a refurbished garage attests — any criticism of the actions of the firefighters is more than most residents can bear. The hotshots have been widely hailed as heroes and even were declared the “Saints of Prescott” at a July 9 memorial service attended by many dignitaries, including Vice President Joe Biden.
These were young men: Three of the dead were 21, five were under 25, six were under 30, four were between 30 and 36, and their leader was 43. They leave behind wives, fiancées, children, and babies yet to be born. They were killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.
But as each day passes, evidence mounts that serious mistakes were made by the Prescott Fire Department, the state Forestry Division, and Granite Mountain’s superintendent.
The Arizona Forestry Division’s decision to let the fire burn the night it started on state land and then dispatch prison crews the next day rather than apply overwhelming force to put it out — combined with a lack of sufficient aircraft to apply desperately needed retardant — turned a manageable event into a catastrophe.
Arizona is “always looking to save money by going cheap,” says Olson, who also worked for four years as a dispatcher in the Santa Fe National Forest, managing resources to fight wildfires. “Sometimes the fire gets away from you and becomes a big monster, putting firefighters at risk.”
Based on the latest federal estimate, the Yarnell Hill “monster” cost $5.45 million to put down.
The federal Southwest Coordination Center oversees Arizona’s 13 hotshot crews, which included Granite Mountain. The SWCC also dispatches eight New Mexico-based hotshot crews.
The crews can be assigned to work for up to 14 days in a row on out-of-town assignments. But after 14 days, they are required to have two days off. On extended periods of activity while based at home, the crews have a minimum of one day off every 21 days, according to the Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations.
SWCC officials refused to respond to questions about whether Granite Mountain had reached its requirement for mandatory days off by June 30. But excerpts from the Arizona Interagency Dispatch Center log suggest its members had.
Soon after the state lost control of the Yarnell Hill Fire on the evening of June 29, fire managers began looking for more help to fight the blaze. Shortly after 6 p.m., incident commander Russ Shumate contacted Charlie Havel, a dispatcher for the Arizona dispatch center, which provides logistical support to firefighting managers.
Shumate said he wanted two hotshot crews sent to Yarnell by 6 a.m. the next day. Havel told Shumate that the Yarnell Hill Fire was “sitting low” on the priority list and that he would “have to shop around” for hotshots. Shumate told Havel that he “might be able to call Prescott and shake some crews loose.”
Prescott had two hotshot crews: the city’s Granite Mountain unit and the Prescott Hotshots, operated by the Prescott National Forest.
A few minutes later, at 6:21 p.m., Havel filed a request with the SWCC for two hotshot crews to be sent to Yarnell.
The SWCC responded four minutes later, stating that it could send only one crew, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, another Arizona-based team. “That will be the only IHC [hotshot crew] I have for tomorrow, though,” the SWCC stated.
At 8:10 p.m., Arizona dispatch contacted the SWCC again and stated: “Placing order for Granite Mountain IHC.”
Three minutes later, the logs show that “ALB” (short for Albuquerque, where the SWCC is located) responded with a terse message to Arizona dispatch: “Can’t accept assignment.”
The state continued to press for a second hotshot crew. At 8:49 p.m., Arizona dispatch contacted the SWCC and advised, “We have pushed orders for another Type 1 crew.”
The dispatch logs show that the SWCC did not respond to this message.
Twelve minutes later, state dispatcher Havel notified state fire managers and other Arizona dispatchers assigned to the Yarnell Hill Fire that he had “e-mailed a resource order to Eric Marsh for Granite Mountain Crew C-5.” Marsh was superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The next day, about 8 a.m., the Granite Mountain Hotshots reported for duty in Yarnell.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots unit is part of a nationwide network of wildland firefighting “hand” crews and is required to meet annual certification standards set by the National Interagency Fire Center before it can be deployed to fight wildfires across the country.
Hotshot crews are considered national assets, and wildfire incident commanders believe they can assign any hotshot crew in the nation to a particular task knowing that each squad can protect firefighters’ safety while accomplishing complex and dangerous missions.
“If I order up a Type 1 [hotshot crew], my expectation is that they are going to meet these standards,” says Dick Mangan, a former wildland firefighter and investigator on major fire disasters, including the South Canyon Fire in Colorado, where nine hotshots and five other firefighters were killed in 1994, and on the Dude Fire near Payson, where six inmate firefighters were killed in 1990.
Like all hotshot crew members, Granite Mountain’s were required to complete at least 40 hours of annual training and meet minimum experience and employment standards. Otherwise, the crew could not be cleared as a certified hotshot squad to fight wildfires each year. Among these standards is that each crew must have at least seven members in “permanent/career” positions.
Granite Mountain failed to meet this standard because the Prescott City Council voted to eliminate two full-time positions in 2012. This left the Granite Mountain Hotshots with six permanent/career employees. Nevertheless, the Prescott Fire Department submitted a certification “checklist” to the interagency command center in Albuquerque in April stating that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had the requisite seven permanent/career employees.
The crew’s certification checklist classified senior firefighter Christopher MacKenzie as a permanent career employee. MacKenzie’s Prescott personnel file, however, states that he was a “temporary and seasonal” employee. MacKenzie signed a “temporary employment acknowledgment” stating that he was not eligible for employee benefits, including health insurance, paid sick leave, paid vacation leave, and paid holidays.
Jennifer Jones, a public affairs officer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, states in an e-mail that hotshot crews are allowed to include seasonal employees among the minimum number of seven permanent/career workers. Such employees are considered “permanent, seasonal” and receive “appointments and benefits,” the NIFC states in published reports, that MacKenzie did not get.
Not only did Granite Mountain not have the sufficient number of permanent/career employees, MacKenzie did not meet the minimum standards to be classified as a senior firefighter, having achieved only a Firefighter Type 2 grade, according to city records. Hotshot standards require a Type 1 grade for senior firefighter, one of the seven command positions on a hotshot crew.
The issue goes beyond a mere paperwork snafu.
Granite Mountain superintendent Marsh knew his crew didn’t meet minimum standards for hotshots, and he expressed frustration to his superior, Wildland Division chief Willis, in his last annual employment review, dated May 5.
“It is challenging to run a nationally recognized program with minimum standards and requirements that I am unable to meet,” Marsh wrote in the self-appraisal section of the review.
“It is frustrating when I know that I have the answers to anyone’s questions about the program but can’t communicate with the decision makers to engage in educational dialogue,” he wrote. “I believe things are starting to change; however, I still have some big questions that need answering about staffing.”
Willis acknowledged Marsh’s frustration over the two lost positions in the annual review.
“[Prescott Fire] Chief [Dan] Fraijo, you, and I have done everything we can to address this issue. We have all spent a lot of time and energy trying to fill the positions,” Willis stated. “It’s now time to let the system work, realize we have done our best, and make the best of the situation.”
Although the certification checklist was required to be signed by the crew’s superintendent, Marsh did not sign the document. City personnel files show that Marsh was reassigned to light duty in mid-April for six to eight weeks and was not attached to the Granite Mountain Hotshots when the certification was signed.
During his absence, Granite Mountain captain Jesse Steed became acting superintendent. Steed signed the certification checklist on April 23 and passed it up to his superiors. Willis and Fraijo signed the certification checklist on the same day.
Willis declined in an e-mail to answer questions concerning the certification checklist, and Fraijo did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Prescott City Attorney Jon Paladini.
Such an apparent misrepresentation on the certification checklist would be a breach of ethics, according to the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations manual.
“It is the responsibility of the superintendent and first line supervisor to objectively assess their crew to see if [members] are meeting the intent of this document,” the manual states. “They are duty-bound to not misrepresent the IHC community. Leadership of the highest moral character is required during these decisions.”
The checklist isn’t the only problematic documentation issue.
Granite Mountain Hotshots officials also are required to prepare an extensive annual “preparedness review” designed to ensure that crew members’ training, qualifications, facilities, vehicles, and inventory meet minimum standards. Granite Mountain’s annual reviews are supposed to be kept at Prescott Fire Department headquarters. The department has not produced copies of the annual reviews, despite repeated verbal requests and a formal request under the Arizona Public Records Law.
If Prescott officials had disclosed that the crew did not meet minimum hotshot standards, it probably would have been reclassified as a lower-level Type 2 initial-attack hand crew. Not only would a Type 2 team have required more direct supervision in the field than a hotshot squad, such a demotion would have been a blow to the Prescott Fire Department’s prestige and could have threatened the Wildland Division’s continued existence.
Willis told Marsh in the May review that the city “as a whole is evaluating our performance” and the “Division’s future is in our hands.” The City Council, as recently as 2012, was considering eliminating the crew, according to records in Willis’ personnel file.
The 14 seasonal hotshots were paid between $12 and $15 an hour, with no benefits. The low pay and lack of benefits for the rank-and-file hotshots was something Marsh complained about repeatedly — largely to no avail.
The city cut the two full-time positions even though most of the Wildland Division’s $1.35 million budget in 2013 came from grants and from reimbursements for wildfire services that the Granite Mountain Hotshots provided across the country. The city contributed $249,000 in matching funds for the grants, plus an additional $68,000 in general funds.
Prescott got reimbursed at a rate of $39 an hour per man when the hotshots were deployed on state or federal lands, according to an agreement with the state Forestry Division. The city declined to produce a copy of the current 2014 Wildland Division budget, approved in late June.
Hardly the “elite” crew the mainstream media has described time and again, the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their leadership — except for Marsh and Steed — were relatively green. Part of the reason was Prescott’s shoestring budget for the unit.
The Granite Mountain crew deployed on June 30 to the Yarnell Hill Fire included four members in their first season of fighting wildland fires and five additional members with only one previous season of firefighting experience, city records show.
Four of the seven members of Granite Mountain’s command staff were in their first season in their positions. Robert Caldwell and Travis Carter were “crew boss” rookies, while Travis Turbyfill and MacKenzie were in their first year as senior firefighters.
Turnover, promotions to Prescott’s higher-paying traditional structural firefighting division, and chronic internal disputes — which led to resignations among crew leaders — had taken a toll on the squad before the start of the 2013 season.
Not only had Marsh been reassigned to light duty for a reported “non-work related” injury, “a major disruption in staffing” occurred “just a few days prior to the seasonal firefighters starting,” Willis stated in Marsh’s personnel file.
The nature of this “major disruption” is unclear, as is another big dispute during the 2011 season, when Marsh and his captain — who subsequently resigned — were at odds. “It was difficult not to be angry and vengeful in the situation,” Marsh wrote.
Yet another details-omitted leadership disruption occurred during the 2010 season when there was an “extraordinary situation with one of our supervisors that ended with a resignation,” Marsh wrote in his employee review for that year.
As the problem-riddled Granite Mountain crew marched up Yarnell Hill on the morning of June 30, on what appears to have been a federally required day off, it was led by Marsh, a superintendent who had not been in the field all season.
Further complicating the situation, the Arizona Forestry Division did not assign an independent division supervisor to oversee Granite Mountain’s assignment to cut trees and shrubs to create a fire line on the southwest flank of the blaze. Instead, it had Marsh do it.
Though it is not unusual for hotshot superintendents to be assigned as division supervisors, former hotshot crew bosses say, it is unusual for them to then remain with crews.
The division supervisor is in charge of all operations in a designated geographic area and often acts as the lookout so he can make decisions based on the most current information about weather and fire conditions, former hotshots say.
“The division supervisor should have been the lookout,” says former Little Tujunga Hotshot Larry Sall. “The kid who was the lookout [Brendan McDonough, 21, the sole survivor among the Granite Mountain Hotshots] should have been on the line.”
Marsh, however, led the crew out of a burned-over safe zone and down into a canyon packed with unburned chaparral, losing direct visual contact with a fire that was intensifying and rapidly moving in the crew’s direction.
The Yarnell Hill fire was ignited about 5:40 p.m. on Friday, June 28, by lightning strikes during one of the season’s first monsoon thunderstorms. Along with a cascade of lightning, such early-season storms typically pack high winds and little moisture.
Arizona dispatch logs show that fire managers determined the fire was “inactive” and “not much of a threat.” The state took no action to put it out the night it started.
The state ordered firefighting crews, made up of inmates from Yuma and Lewis state prisons, to be in Peeples Valley, a small community a few miles north of Yarnell, by 8 a.m. Saturday. Later that morning, aircraft were used to drop retardant around the fire to stop it from spreading while the prison crews managed its edges. By midday, the state thought the fire was out.
“They thought they had it at this point, [that] air attack [had] knocked it down,” Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne said in a July interview.
State fire managers began removing firefighting equipment, including a single-engine air tanker and at least two engines, from the Yarnell Hill Fire shortly after 3 p.m. But an hour later, incident commander Russ Shumate notified a dispatcher that crews were “still having trouble catching” the fire. It now was estimated to be between two and four acres.
Problems escalated quickly.
Shortly after 5 p.m., the fire jumped a two-track jeep road acting as a firebreak on the eastern flank. An hour later, this new arm of the fire — known as a “slop-over” because it had crossed a firebreak — had grown to about two acres on the eastern side of the jeep trail. The state had 13 firefighters trying to contain the slop-over.
At this point, the weather became a major factor. Thunderstorms to the northeast, near Prescott, thwarted efforts to call in a helicopter and another heavy air tanker, as both pilots turned down missions to drop retardant on the fire, dispatch logs show.
Although a DC-10, the largest tanker in the fleet of planes used to drop retardant, was available in Albuquerque, commanders in charge of the plane refused to respond to Yarnell because of “weather and other priority fires.”
The lack of substantial air support and the inability of the inmate crews to cut effective fire lines failed to contain the blaze. “The [prison] hand crew that is up there with limited [chainsaw capabilities] is ineffective,” Shumate told the dispatcher.
The state Forestry Division’s initial attack on what had been a relatively small fire had failed.
As night fell, the fire had grown to about 150 acres, although records show that no one was certain of its size at the time. As the fire burgeoned, the state ordered additional resources, including a “Short Type 2 incident-management team,” to assume control of firefighting operations the next day. A short team is a bare-bones unit that lacks sufficient senior managers, called “overhead,” to direct firefighting operations.
It was this team that would tap not only Granite Mountain leader Eric Marsh to act as a division supervisor but also his boss, Darrell Willis, to serve as a division supervisor overseeing structural protection in Peeples Valley.
Authorities typically try to keep a tight lid on information related to fatalities involving wildland fire crews. But considerable information already is known about events leading to the burn-over that killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Because the fire occurred on state land and the victims were part of a city fire department, there has been much greater access to facts than normally occurs when only federal agencies are involved.
In addition, there have been at least three important public statements by key figures since the incident. Willis’ July 23 press conference at the deployment site was followed a week later by statements from Deputy State Forester Payne, who said in a widely publicized interview that mistakes were made by Marsh that put the crew at risk.
Payne said that 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 [Marsh] broke those rules and put those people at risk,” Payne said.
Every hotshot knows, experts say, that major mistakes have been made if emergency fire shelters are deployed.
“Shelter deployment is a big marker, a big red flag,” says Sall, the Little Tujunga Hotshot who served five years as a crew member. “They should have never been in that situation to begin with.”
In early August, Brendan McDonough, the crew’s lone survivor and spotter, provided more details of the events leading up to the tragedy, including confirmation that Granite Mountain crew members knew that severe weather was coming and that the fire had turned toward them. They may not have known, however, how fast it was approaching.
McDonough says in a Prescott Courier video that he joined the other crew working the fire, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, after the fire forced him to leave his lookout post just north of where the Granite Mountain crew worked. The Blue Ridge crew was clearing vegetation from a trail that had been cut by a bulldozer. The goal was to set a fire in the path of the wildfire moving rapidly south. But, McDonough says, the intensity of the wildfire forced commanders to pull equipment and personnel off the fire line from 4:15 to 4:30 p.m.
“We pulled off, we parked at a cafe, and during that time, I told my superintendent and captain that we had the vehicles in a safe area,” McDonough says. “That’s the last time that I talked to [them].”
Payne’s and McDonough’s statements — along with Prescott personnel records and State Forestry Division, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, and Department of Public Safety reports (all released in response to public-records requests) — provide extensive details that have been discussed vigorously among wildfire experts.
The huge unanswered question, of course, is why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the safe area that already had been burned and hiked cross-country through the thick, unburned chaparral and down into the steep canyon as the powerful thunderstorm was pushing flames directly at them.
Wildland Division chief Willis asserted that the Hotshots simply did what firefighters do.
“My thought on it was they were in a safe location,” Willis said during the deployment-site press briefing. “They were not satisfied, and no wildland firefighter is satisfied sitting there and watching the fire progress without doing, taking some action.”
Willis said he believes the Granite Mountain crew left its safe position in the charred area to protect the ranch that was on the outskirts of Yarnell, the same ranch that wound up spared because of the clearings the residents dug around it.
“I believe [crew members] felt they weren’t doing good where they were at,” Willis said. “They had to abandon their tactic of trying to anchor and flank the fire and go into what we call point protection, and that’s to move fire around the houses and to protect structures. I believe that was what their intent was.”
The Granite Mountain Hotshots took this action even though they left a ridge where they could see the fire and descended into the box canyon where they no longer could observe what it was doing.
“You know, it’s all speculation at this point in time,” Willis said. “But in my heart, I would know they are not protecting themselves … They are going to protect that ranch.”
Willis said the hotshots — equipped only with shovels, saws, and torches (with which to light backfires) — relied on instinct.
“I have thought about that a lot,” he said. “It is ingrained in firefighters’ minds. Why do firefighters run into burning buildings when it’s just property?”
Willis’ assessment has outraged retired hotshots. In particular, his view that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were willing to risk their lives to protect structures conflicts with fundamental principles of wildland firefighting.
Dick Mangan, the retired wildfire investigator who now runs a wildfire-consulting business in Missoula, Montana, says he never jeopardized the safety of his crew to save a structure or even an entire evacuated town of buildings.
“The hell with the town of Yarnell,” Mangan says. “If [it has] to burn up to keep my firefighters alive, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
In the seven years he spent on a crew, former hotshot superintendent Rod Wrench says, he did not worry about structural protection either.
“That’s why the hell [there is] fire insurance,” says Wrench, who served on the Del Rosa Hotshots from 1967 to 1970 before becoming superintendent of the Little Tujunga Hotshots in California’s Angeles National Forest through 1973.
A former hotshot superintendent in Arizona who continues to fight wildfires says a wildland firefighter always must respect the fire he is facing, a principle he sums up with the expression: “Let the big dog eat.”
Darrell Willis’ assertion that the Granite Mountain Hotshots attempted to reach a ranch to protect it from the fire reveals a fundamental problem of having a hotshot crew attached to a municipal fire department, says Gary Olson, the former hotshot supervisor and Bureau of Land Management criminal investigator.
Olson fears the philosophy of structural firefighters that advocates protecting homes and property distorted the judgment of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, causing them to ignore fundamental principles of wildland firefighting during an extremely stressful situation.
The trigger point, Olson suggests, came when the crew learned that Yarnell was under mandatory evacuation. Dispatch records show the evacuation order was issued about 3:40 p.m. An hour later, the Granite Mountain crew found itself trapped in the box canyon.
“There is absolutely no other explanation that I can come up with, no matter how much I think about it, except that their priority mission was to protect structures,” Olson says. “That may be what structural firefighters do, but there should be no way in hell that is what wildland firefighters do, especially when they are on foot and carrying hand tools.”
While Deputy State Forester Payne stated that Marsh erred in taking his crew out of “the black” and through unburned chaparral, Olson is not so quick to blame Marsh.
“He made a seriously flawed decision,” Olson says. “But he did what he was trained to do [save structures].”
Whether there was communication between Marsh and his superiors in the moments leading up to the deployment of fire shelters is unknown.
Willis, Marsh’s direct supervisor, states in an e-mail that he had no contact with Marsh or Granite Mountain captain Jesse Steed on June 30. Willis states he was overseeing structural protection in Peeples Valley.
It is possible that Marsh did not communicate with anyone about his decision to move the crew from the safety of the charred area.
DPS records reveal that no one was quite sure where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were located when they sent out frantic radio calls about 4:47 p.m., moments before they deployed their shelters. It took a DPS helicopter crew nearly 40 minutes to find the site where the men perished, partly because thick smoke complicated the search.
When the state relinquished control of the situation by making Marsh division supervisor, he had the authority to move his crew wherever he believed was necessary, without seeking permission from superiors.
“This removed an important check-and-balance,” Olson says.
If Marsh had been required to contact a state division supervisor — one not influenced by the structural-protection philosophy espoused by Willis — he surely would have been ordered to remain in the already-burned terrain or to move south along the jeep road that provided clear access to a main highway, Olson surmises.
“That is a direct causal factor in their deaths because there wasn’t another level of supervision outside of thinking like a structural firefighter,” Olson says.
The Granite Mountain crew, by all appearances, was highly disciplined. The fact that the bodies of all 19 men were found close together is powerful testament to a cohesive unit. No one cut and ran in the face of the inferno. So it’s not surprising that Willis’ structures-first philosophy would be fully embraced by the crew. This attitude was highlighted at the July 9 memorial service during a eulogy by Dan Bates, a vice president of the United Yavapai Fire Fighters Association.
“Just before the final hike in to start battling the fire, one of the firefighters was texting his mother,” Bates said. “The mother was concerned over the long month the men had spent fighting fire [in other places] and the 100-plus-degree temperature in Yarnell. She wanted them to rest. The son replied, “‘Mom, the fire is getting big. There’s a ranch down there. We need to go protect it. We will rest later.’”
The Arizona Forestry Division has delegated investigation of the Yarnell tragedy to a nine-member interagency team led by Florida State Forester Jim Karels. There is no one from Arizona on the Serious Accident Investigation Team charged with producing a “factual and management report for accident prevention.”
All records produced during the investigation are to be turned over to the state Forestry Division. The investigative team’s final report also will go to the state for review before it is released, according to Payne, the deputy state forester.
Mangan, the retired wildfire serious-accident investigator, says he knows several members of the investigation team and believes they will provide an accurate assessment of what happened: “I have confidence that they are going to do a good job and let the chips fall where they may.”
But many other current and former wildlands firefighters spoken to for this article aren’t so sure. They say they have never seen the complete truth told.
William Riggles, a 12-year member of the Smokey Bear Hotshots based in New Mexico, states in a an e-mail that he got out of the business in 2008 because accident investigations “never criticized any” management decisions.
Riggles says “facts changed” during investigations, and “what’s worse, everybody keeps their mouths shut and babbles the official story.”
InvestigativeMEDIA incorrectly reported that Darrell Willis had no hotshot experience.In fact, Willis worked with the Granite Mountain crew three times in 2010 and and once in 2011 and has several wildfire certifications including an Firefighter Type 1 and Operations Section Chief Type II.
The story also incorrectly identified “ALB” in a dispatch log as “Albuquerque” when referring to the location of the Southwest Coordination Center. “ALB” are the initials for an individual who works at the SWCC. The SWCC is a federal interagency dispatch center located in Albuquerque, NM.
The story incorrectly stated that the Yarnell Hill fire was Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh’s first fire since being placed on light duty on April 18. Records released by Prescott Fire Department on Sept. 3 show that Marsh worked with the crew on the Doce Fire from June 18-25 and the West Spruce Fire on June 28 and the Mt. Josh Fire on June 29..
InvestigativeMEDIA apologizes for the errors.
© Copyright 2013 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA