Yarnell Hill Fire: The Granite Mountain Hotshots Never Should’ve Been Dispatched, Mounting Evidence Shows

EmailShare

By John Dougherty
InvestigativeMEDIA

Also Published Wed., Aug. 21 2013 at 12:24 PM
Correction appended at end of story.
Yarnell-Feature1-1-top.jpg
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.

A pyrocumulonimbus cloud erupts over Yarnell at the exact moment when the Granite Mountain Hotshots were deploying their fire shelters. Photo: Arizona Forestry Division

A pyrocumulonimbus cloud erupts over Yarnell at the exact moment when the Granite Mountain Hotshots were deploying their fire shelters. Photo: Arizona Forestry Division

“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.”

Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis answers media questions at the deployment site where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. Photo: John Dougherty

Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis answers media questions at the deployment site where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died. Photo: John Dougherty

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.

A makeshift memorial wraps around the Granite Mountain Hotshot station in downtown Prescott. Photo: John Dougherty

A makeshift memorial wraps around the Granite Mountain Hotshot station in downtown Prescott. Photo: John Dougherty

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.”

Thousands of mourners attended a July 9 memorial service for the fallen Hotshots. Photo: Arizona Forestry Division

Thousands of mourners attended a July 9 memorial service for the fallen Hotshots. Photo: Arizona Forestry Division

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.

Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward (left), and Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne answer questions at the deployment site press conference. Photo: John Dougherty

Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward (left), and Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne answer questions at the deployment site press conference. Photo: John Dougherty

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 Hotshots honor guard motorcade rolls through Peeples Valley. Photo: John Dougherty

The Granite Mountain Hotshots honor guard motorcade rolls through Peeples Valley. Photo: John Dougherty

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.”

Corrections/Clarifications:

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: InvestigativeMEDIA

61 thoughts on “Yarnell Hill Fire: The Granite Mountain Hotshots Never Should’ve Been Dispatched, Mounting Evidence Shows

  1. what I have read, and what my mind tells me from years of wildland firefighting experience tells me that this is a true lesson and that these 19 individuals did not die in vane. Although a tragic incident has transpired, we must never lose sight of what we all must learn from this event. 1. Human error will always be a factor regardless of the situation. 2. 10′s and 18′s are not always followed. 3. Direct blame is always directed upward.
    With death comes blame and then shame.
    Let’s take a minute and ask ourselves what can we do to prevent this situation from happening again. The we can begin to realize that the dead are gone, and that life will continue in their place.
    Let’s all take a minute and breathe.. see that we can move forward and face the challenges that every Superintendent, Crew Boss, Squad Boss on down.. faces and realize that we haven’t perfected this shit yet.. but WE ARE ALL WORKING TOGETHER TO JUST FIGURE IT OUT!
    No Blame, just humility and the respect it takes to learn an move on.
    Please, I ask God above to give forgiveness to those who ask, and patience to those who still seek the truth. May you find peace in the words of God.

    17 years in the Fire Service has provided me with Faith, Hope, and Love.

    Please find solace in my words, peace in the understand of what humans do, and the hope to realize their mistakes and that they all learn from them.

    AMEN!

  2. As a former federal investigator here are a few thoughts I have on the AZ Granite Mountain Hotshots (GMH) report and more importantly, what isn’t discussed: (1) Will another report be generated that addresses the “causes…errors, mistakes, and violations”. (2) Where the communications “dead spots” verified? (3) Was the team in a dead spot? They appear to have good communications. (4) Did any GMH attempt to use their cell phones with position information? (5) Were any of these vague transmissions generated by outside sources? (6) What was the disconnect between the “Very Large Airtanker” and the GMH’s seven attempts to communicate? (7) What areas of “further analysis …of the wildland fire communications” is needed?

  3. I am a former Supt. of The Flathead Hotshot Crew. I retired after 27 years of firefighting including 9 as a smokejumper and 14 as a Hotshot Foreman or Supt. (during that time I was the Foreman of the crew while we occupied a burned out safety zone in the Dude Fire of 1990).I was also a Type 2 Safety Officer on a Type 1 IMT. After reading the final report, it is apparent to me that even with all the “problems” with Granite Mtn.’s Readiness review and the other information about the fire behavior and extended descriptions of human factors and other vast amount of information…the final layer of swiss cheese of all the errors that caused the fatalities was: The crew was in the black and safe. After they had lost their lookout, they decided to leave the safety zone..during a trigger point situation in the fire, and travel out of the black through an unknown area (including a box canyon) with the intent of getting to another safety zone that may or may not have been valid. This is a clear violation of LCES and several of the 10 Standard Orders.

  4. Good article. I hope the truth does come out in the investigation. Structural protection in a wildland fire is still not a clear priority.

  5. Back to you Goldie, concerning your claims of fatalities in the Tuolumne drainage, I’m not aware of any CDF firefighter death in 1994, however I am aware of the 1987 fatality because I reviewed with my crews all wildland fatalities that occurred in the agency during my employment with the F.S. The 1987 incident occurred on the Hamm Fire on the Stanislaus NF, in Sept. north of hwy.120 when a Klamath NF engine foreman was felling a snag and it fell on to another tree bouncing off the tree and falling on and killing him. An unfortunate accident but hardly an aggressive initial attack fatality situation. My beef with current wildland firefighting tactics is the lack of, timely or failure to execute a proper, aggressive IA and also the lack or flat out not assigning night night shifts. You ask any knowledgeable fire fighter, especially Hot Shots, and they will tell you they accomplish more on night shifts, terrain permitting. Again, we will see if our natural resource suffered another beating based on the IA.

  6. Larry Sall on September 1, 2013 at 11:59 am said:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    J. Golden,
    Just curious, are those your hands clutching the U.S.F.S. pulaski on the cover of the book “The Tinder Box” by Christopher Burchfield? I bet the picture was taken by your mutt Jeremy.

    Yes, I threw a punch here and maybe a lot more punches need to be thrown to reexamine the lack of a much needed, aggressive but safe initial attack on fire in flashy fuels by experienced firefighters.

    Rod Wrench and his assessment of the Rim and Yarnell Hill fires are correct. I would also include the Storm King fiasco.

    When it comes down to it, current political ideology and the coddled quota hires have become more important than the experienced and motivated firefighter. Mismanaged little fires are now Big fires and I’m tired of seeing hearses roll down the road.

    Larry Sall
    3rd Hook
    Little Tujunga Hot Shots
    “you can look it up”
    Reply ↓

  7. While the Yarnell Hill Fire was apparently started by lightning, I think this video on Fire Warfare should be shared. After Bin Laden’s death, evidence was gathered re: terrorists waging Fire Warfare, which results in major economic warfare, against the West. Many of our forest fires have been attributed to arson. This video features former National Security Agency official William Scott.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFHM0rd9cX8&feature=share&fb_source=message

  8. There was a town hall meeting with the F.S., unsure of the town, with the Division Chief in attendance and I was told the excuse was stated there at that meeting. The lack of a proper & aggressive initial attacks on wildfires all over the western U.S. has been occurring now for about 20 years with disastrous results. They, the responsible agencies, have pre prepared statements to cover their failures. ie: Unsafe, too steep and rugged, not accessible, lack of resources, too smokey, it’s a “natural fire” let it burn, it’s in a designated wilderness let it burn. Just to name a few! Nobody is challenging them because of the specialty & knowledge of the subject. The bottom line is: They are NOT protecting our natural resources as charged to them by the Congress of the U.S. over a hundred years ago.

    • Guys, our federal agencies are not funded to handle initial attack. Too much money is wasted with the military industrial complex in wars around the world. Read the recent reports on the aging fleet of slurry capable planes.

      Focus on the Prescott Fire Department and State Fire Department mismanagement.

    • Rod, I’m confident I can guess your political affiliation. This mentality (or ignorance) is what got us into this mess to begin with. You can not suppress nature. You can not just buy your way out of a fire free world. More technology and quicker IA now will only push the problem down the road or will eventually result in a bigger disaster. You can not expect Federal Fire Agencies to protect and manage private lands where all of “the problem fires” occur. People who live in the wildland urban interface know what the risks are. If they don’t or don’t prepare then I have no sympathy for their homes burning. That is what insurance is for I guess, and that is where the problem should be addressed. Building codes, regulations, and higher insurance premiums. Fund the Federal Agencies to deal with the largest Natural Disasters and to manage lands using fire as a tool. (Oh, by the way, the wildland fire community is who does most of the incident management on other types of Natural Disasters. Their expertise in ICS and ability to mobilize resources and supplies is key to any large incident response.)
      To correct you, if you really read and understood fire history and forest management in America. Read the Big Blow Up by Norman Maclain and compare the attitudes and political tactics used to try to undermine and destroy the Forest Service (who represents all the Federal Fire Agencies) ever since its beginnings. Fire Agencies have always been underfunded (especially if you expect every fire to be immediately detected and suppressed). Decide if you want to have the capacity to respond to Natural disasters at all levels or decide to cut positions and funding and blame them when the Sh&# goes down.

      • Jeremy, I respect your views & comments, however my political affiliation has nothing to do with the fact that over 300 sq. miles of our natural resource has just been moonscaped for the next two generations, but I can guess your political affiliation by your book learned comments. My comments and view come from 30 years of service with the USFS in fire management in every discipline of fire suppression type 1 rated, fire prevention/detection, fuels management & law enforcement on two So. Cal Nat. Forests & 3 Ranger Districts. I am not ignorant to anything the FS can & cannot do but the U.S. Forest Service pre 1980 was hands down one of the most respected & finest agencies in the Federal Gov’t., also the finest wildland firefighting agency in the world. A proper, aggressive initial attack on any wildfire is always, safer, uses less resources, less expensive and the most efficient method of fire suppression. If you want to do fuel modification don’t use wildfire to meet your goals in the middle of fire season. The resources used on natural disasters are of course the same resources used in every day work of the agency and are funded, they don’t go pull them out of a closet when they need them!! Maybe once you grow up and smell the smoke, quit reading propaganda books to get all your information and get out and experience real life situations you will see the light. Good luck!!!

      • Jeremy Sorry but you made a lot of assumptions. Up untill the early 90′s there was a thing called the 10 AM policy. All fires were attacted on initial report with an attempt to contain by 10am the next day
        there were IA resorces available for all those fires and they were funded.

  9. We have another initial attack failure or I should say the lack of any kind of initial attack, like the Yarnell Fire, on now the monstrous Rim Fire still burning in the Stanislaus National Forest of California. No IA performed for nearly 36 hours on a lightning fire, aka “a natural fire”, in the Tuolumne drainage west of Yosemite National Park. Official excuse: “a lack of resources”. This is bulls**t of course because there were crews available that could of been tooled up sent to the fire and supported by aircraft. The fire has exceeded 100 million dollars in just suppression costs not including damage to public and private resources. The present do nothing attitude of the modern wildland firefighting agencies charged with the protection of our natural resources has failed us again!!

    • .

      Wow…no initial attack in the first 36 hours! Has that been reported elsewhere? If you have info on that it would be helpful. Thanks.

      .

    • Mr Wrench you know nothing of which you speak about the Rim fire. If you were familiar with the Tuolumne river canyon and the condition of the vegetation there, you would not send your son or daughter in on initial attack. Your use of the term “natural fire” implies that a decision was made to “let the fire burn”. Not true. The decision was made to go indirect for safety reasons. Not calling you a liar, just saying your opinion is unfounded and to express here is irresponsible. There are enough valid issues to address concerning fire management and public land management without making unfounded accusations and starting rumors. Shame on you.

      • J. Golden,
        Just curious, are those your hands clutching the U.S.F.S. pulaski on the cover of the book “The Tinder Box” by Christopher Burchfield? I bet the picture was taken by your mutt Jeremy.

        Yes, I threw a punch here and maybe a lot more punches need to be thrown to reexamine the lack of a much needed, aggressive but safe initial attack on fire in flashy fuels by experienced firefighters.

        Rod Wrench and his assessment of the Rim and Yarnell Hill fires are correct. I would also include the Storm King fiasco.

        When it comes down to it, current political ideology and the coddled quota hires have become more important than the experienced and motivated firefighter. Mismanaged little fires are now Big fires and I’m tired of seeing hearses roll down the road.

        Larry Sall
        3rd Hook
        Little Tujunga Hot Shots
        “you can look it up”

    • And by the way Rim fire was not lightning caused. No lightning in the area until after the fire started. Still under investigation. Check your facts sir.

      • And no one ever said that decision was due to lack of resources either. You should check your sources before passing along rumors and misinformation.

        • Golden Child, don’t you dare go talking about me sending my son or daughter into a unsafe initial attack. For seven years on 2 Inter-regional Hot Shot crews & 3 years on engines I led hundreds of young firefighters SAFELY on IA’s and extended incidents, the other 11 years of my USFS career was managing a large District fire organization in So Cal. with a Type 1 rating. I know the mind set of the modern FS and so does most all other FS retirees & when it comes to wildland firefighting and I don’t care how the freaking fire started or where it started the agency does not properly & aggressively initial attack fires anymore, anywhere. Based on your comment “the decision was made to go indirect for safety reasons” you know nothing about proper & aggressive IA methods. And by the way “Goldie” I will post, comment on any damn thing I want to. If you don’t like it, don’t read it! Go back sitting in front of your computer and having meetings and we will see how the IA plays out on this fire.

          • Guess I hit a nerve eh? Yes I had 34 years in the FS and in all the large fires I experienced, there was always some one who crawled out from under a rock and started making wild and unfounded accusations about fire tactics or policy. You are in that category. Care to defend any of the nonsense that you stated about the Rim Fire? By the way, the Tuolumne canyon, where this fire started, was where a firefighter died in the 1987 fires, and also where a CDF firefighter died in 1994 on another fire. Just trying to keep to the facts straight and not allow any of your biased bs to taint the tough situations that out teams are facing these days.

  10. I’m glad John Dougherty, is looking into this. I loved being a ground pounder, and never wanted to move up the ladder. I wanted to teach what I knew, to the new people. There are no classes to teach awareness on a fire. You learn from people who have been there A LOT.

    I agree that the task book system is a joke. Getting your task book signed off is a big distraction to the job. tek9tim & Russ make good points on this subject. Thanks!

    My E-mail to John Daugherty:
    I got out of fire in 08, because critique and review of events never criticized any overhead decisions. Facts changed to fit the event… and what’s worse everybody keeps their mouth shut and babbles the official story. The result is; it’s O.K. to do it that way. Until it becomes O.K. to critique people’s actions, things will NOT change.

    I was referring to After Action Reviews, but I will extend those words to include the Official Accident Reports.

  11. Comment to Gary Olson and John Dougherty: I am in complete agreement with comments about possible communications to Marsh to descend ASAP-this is a critical missing link. In addition, is it possible that someone down below told the crew that they had “eyes” on them and the fire, and that they were good to come down? Hall’s team/OSC2 and the resources on Marsh’s division will have to answer this.

    On another note, with all of the talk of point protection and the existing video footage shot by air attack of burnout operations, mums the word so far on any impact burnout operations could have had on the main fire as the wind shift occurred.

    If you were doing point protection burnout ops at Peeples, would you move fire S or W away from Peeples using the N wind? If the t-cell approaches from the NE through a natural topographic funnel, and it hits Peeples first, what does it do to fire on the ground there? If any burnout escaped S with an estimated ROS of 12 mph=15 minutes to travel 3 miles to Yarnell, could it have drafted the main fire (Parker photo) into a blowup? Does the Matt Oss time lapse video show 2 opposing columns? Does this indicate 2 flame fronts?

    Pure speculation at this point but the horrific circumstances beg the questions and concerns. I ask these questions as a retired wildland firefighter with 12 seasons behind me, and with the expectation that the investigation reports fully address burnout operations, if only just to eliminate them as causal factors.

  12. As a former Hotshot and elected official (Town Councilman) I would like to say thanks for the great work on this article. I knew the minute I heard the news that mistakes were responsible for this tragic loss of life.

    I think it is important to emphasize the politics and decision making the created the situation in the first place. The City of Prescott in the Hotshot/wild-land fire business? Highly questionable. What benefit is there to the City of Prescott to deploy Hotshots to other regions? I trust the sole searching that is now occurring will lead to more informed decisions at the administrative and political levels.

  13. Pingback: Granite Mountain 19 and the human factors on the fireline | The Roaming Ecologist

  14. It looks like some great investigative work has been done to write this article. I retired after 30 years in fire management. During that time I served on all type of crews and was superintendent of a hotshot crew, operations section chief and fire management officer. I know people that died at South Canyon and 30 Mile.

    The 30 Mile Investigation Report focused on the mistakes made by the District FMO and the Incident Commander. Subsequent fatality fires required that Type 3 Incident Commanders pass a simulation to retain their qualification. What really should of happened at the time was a review of the incident qualifications system, the “taskbooks”. As a member of an Interagency Red Card review committee I frequently had to review completed task books. Often I had no idea of the true complexity of an assignment, how involved the trainee was in completing the assignment, how well they completed their assignment, or how good their decision making process was. The taskbook system is a joke! As an OSC2 trainee do I really have to be judged on how well I packed for the assignment? There is nothing in the task book (note, I have not seen a task book since I retired in 2007) that rates my decision making process or my understanding of safety. Each Red Card Committee should have reviewed the decision making ability of people that were in fire leadership positions (crewboss and above). If a person was found to be lacking in decision making abilities they should have pulled their leadership qualification and given them a list of things to do to get the qualification.

    Who assigned the Granite Mountain IHC to their assignment? Who was in charge of the Division Group Supervisor ( as an IHC Sup. I often took DIVS assignments and turned the crew over to my Captain)?

    • That’s an excellent point about taskbooks and decision making. In 2008, they did change a lot of the taskbooks to include leadership principle “tasks” sorted under duty, respect, and integrity, but they are weakly worded and get automatically signed off much like the “assemble a kit” task.

      So how do we make sure that leaders have good decision making skills? At this point, it is a matter of integrity of the trainers signing off trainees. Personally, I have had trainees that simply do not have the decision making abilities requisite to the position they are working toward, and have signed more than one taskbook choosing option #3 in the back which is something to the effect of “well, they didn’t kill anybody, but they seriously need more training before going out as a trainee again”. Most people in our business are more than happy to be critical behind someone’s back or when a major accident occurs, but do not have the courage to be critical where it really counts if you want to save lives in the future, in taskbooks and performance evals.

      I feel the redcard committee is a mixed blessing. On the positive, people are scared that their taskbook won’t be solid enough to pass, so they continue to take trainee assignments perhaps longer than they need to, everything is properly filled out, and at least on paper, looks good. On the negative side, there is no consistency. From one meeting to another (based on who is in the room), from one forest to another, from one trainee to another. I feel that many committees run away with second guessing people they don’t know, and never question people they do know.

      Dang, did I even make a point? I guess the point I wanted to make was that red card committees lack the ability to truly judge the decision making ability of leaders, despite what they think. It all comes down to the trainer to determine whether the person is capable or not. There’s no checkbox for it, there’s no way to truly quantify it. You are absolutely correct, our qualifications system is flawed. The system only has as much integrity as the people signing off taskbooks. If I lower the bar for a trainee, he will hold the bar that low for his trainees. If someone lacks decision making abilities and I sign them off, I just gave them the power to make decisions about who gets to be qualified at that level in the future. A downward spiral that fire leaders with integrity are the only protection against.

      • So true that often task books are turned into stumbling blocks for many while fire management’s ‘little favorites’ zoom to the top despite their many failures and shortcomings. Anyone that thinks that federal fire managers are a straight deal ain’t worked in the business for long!

  15. There is one thing I hope everyone remembers, we did not start this public airing of wildland firefighter’s dirty little secrets, Darrell Willlis, Jim Paxon and Jerry Payne did, but I am willing to finish it.

    There is only one thing I am waiting for now, and that is for the Yarnell Hill Fire investigation team to tell us who ordered Eric Marsh to take his Granite Mountain Hotshots as quickly as he could (hence the use of the death chute instead of following the Jeep trail to the ranch) to Glen Ilah and Yarnell to help with the evacuation and start “point protection,” since all of the Big Red Fire Engines could not reach the scene as they were blocked from entering those towns by the fleeing residents who were using all of the road lanes to escape.

    Based on Rod Wrench’s excellent explanation of the authority of a Division Supervisor above (I tried to explain it to John, but I have been out to long to do a good job of it), I am convinced somebody called Eric Marsh on either a cell phone or an unused and therefore unmonitored tactical frequency and told him to leave that ridge, start point protection, and help with the evacuation of those towns.

    By all accounts, Eric Marsh was a dedicated and a “squared away” hotshot superintendent and wildland firefighter. I do not believe he, or any other Division Supervisor would ever take that kind of radical, unilateral, unauthorized and unthinkable action without a higher power ordering him to do so.

    I also hope the current Yarnell Hill Fire investigative team is reading these posts, as this will be the first disaster fire investigated since the explosion of social media and the widespread use of the internet. This one is going to be a tough one to cover up, unlike all of the other ones in the past.

    I would like to quote my personal hero, and the leading voice in the United States on wildland firefighter safety, Dr. Ted Putnam, ” While a Forest Service employee, I investigated many of the entrapments that occurred in the past twenty plus years. In my early years as a firefighter I was told and believed that fire management provided safety fixes after “the ashes had settled.” Because of that belief, I helped cover up the real causes of the fatalities on the Battlement Creek Fire in 1976. I bit my tongue on many more, including South Canyon in 1994 and Sheppard Mountain in 1996, due to promised improvements. As the promises faded, I began to speak up at firefighter conferences because if fire safety is ever going to be “fixed,” the real causes of fatalities, injuries and near misses must be clearly understood. If organizational safety practices and training are based on the “official records,” which many times are not based on the facts, how effective can these practices be?”

    Dr. Putnam actually refused to sign the South Canyon investigation report, and that was the last entrapment investigation they let him go on. I met Dr. Putnam at the Battlement Creek Fire Staff Ride, which I attended as a Subject Matter Expert, and I had the great pleasure of hearing him speak.

    Everyone who is interested in the subject of wildland firefighter safety should start by reading FIRE SAFETY: UP IN SMOKE? by Dr. Ted Putnam, Ph. D. Psychologist, and THE COLLAPSE OF DECISION MAKING AND ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE ON STORM KING MOUNTAIN, which is also by Dr. Putnam. And finally, Dr. Putnam’s Human Factors Workshops 1-4.

    In addition, anyone who wants to understand why this absolutely horrific catastrophe is unprecedented and is such an anomaly in the history of hotshots fatalities should study the Loop Fire of 1966, involving the El Cariso Hotshots, the Battlement Creek Fire of 1976, involving the Mormon Lake Hotshots, and the South Canyon Fire of 1994, involving the Prineville Hotshots, at the link below. The Yarnell Hill Fire is only the fourth fire in history to kill hotshots.

    http://www.fireleadership.gov/toolbox/staffride/main_library.html

  16. Gary/Dan, Right On! Being a Hot Shot is a young persons game and after 7 years of it as just a foreman & superintendent on two crews I moved on to fire management with the F.S. It’s exciting & you learn the most about fire behavior but it takes a toll on you the older you get. The crew members normally move on, after their experience, to something else after 2 to 4 years. Gary, you are absolutely right about the mind set of hand crews of local government agencies. While on the Angeles NF I saw for myself, L.A. County has paid hand fire crews and the crew members dream job was a cushy, well paid, permanent engine job with any fire agency. I talked to their overhead and they said a couple of years on one of their paid crews was good experience to be picked up on a engine. A Hot Shot crew and /or their overhead has no business thinking they have a responsibility to protect a structure or suppress a structure fire, it is not their charge or duty as a wildland firefighting team. Just put the damn wild fire out!!!!!!!!!! Willis, Paxon and the rest are talking from where the sun don’t shine.

  17. I worked with and know Gary Olson very will. I agree totaly with him on this. We are wildland fires fighters, we are hired not protect towns why would you risk or son and daughters for builting that the owner pay fire insurance to replace and have had year to make them fire proof. This is all political and politic and fire fighting never have seen eye to eye.

  18. Overall great article, however you kind skip over the fact that the Granite Mountain crew although sponsored and ran through a structural department was an exclusively wildland resource. These guys weren’t the guys who ride around on the big red trucks and just happened to be thrown in to this crew. Wildland was what they did all the time. In fact several of the members of this crew had worked for federal hotshot crews previously. So to say that “there wasn’t another level of supervision outside of thinking like a structural firefighter” shows that there is some confusion about how this crew operated. It isn’t for me to say that their ties to the city department didn’t or didn’t affect the crew philosophy on that, I just think that this needed to be cleared up a bit.

    • There is no confusion on my part. I am from Prescott. I started on the Prescott National Forest as a wildland firefighter at 19. I know Darrell Willis personally. I know Granite Mountain Hotshots routinely rotate in and out among structural firefighters in Prescott. I know most, if not all, of the Granite Mountain Hotshots hoped to eventually enter the permanent ranks of the Prescott Fire Department structural firefighters ranks where they could have some semblance of a normal life with benefits and a regular paycheck. I know being a hotshot is incredibly demanding both mentally and physically, very few can make a career out of that work, I know I could not. I know that even when the Granite Mountain Hotshots were not on fires, their priority mission was structural protection. They spent all of their project work days working to create defensible space around homes and other structures in Prescott. I know what their mind set was before they descended into that death chute, the young man who texted his mother told us what the crew was thinking, “‘Mom, the fire is getting big. There’s a ranch down there. We need to go protect it. We will rest later.’” I know this mindset cause those men’s deaths. I know the people who put that mindset into their heads are responsible for their deaths. I know all of the structural firefighters and politicians who spoke at their memorial service JUST DO NOT GET IT! I know I was on the Battlement Creek Fire and I have never gotten over that day, and I know I will never get over this one either.

      • I didn’t mean for it to sound like I was attacking you mr. Olson, and I am sure that you have a great understanding of the crew. I was just observing that the media and politicians and uninformed public are blurring the lines between the structure and wildland world. And although your comments from this article may be correct the way people are going to interpret it might be wrong because they are unfamiliar with the job.

        • I apologize for my sharp comments and I agree with your comments above. The casual factors in this event are going to be very hard for the general public to understand and even harder for the good citizens of Prescott to accept. I do however, strongly believe it was the blurring of lines between wildland and structural firefighting by the Prescott Fire Department that was the primary casual factor in this tragedy. It should not have happened. I know that can be said for every tragedy, but this one really should not have happened.

          • An experienced WILDLAND fire fighter told me when I started in this business 32 years ago – “Jim – just remember one thing – no matter HOW bad it gets, if your safety zone has been burned over, if the fire is three miles now out ahead of you, if some structures/homes have been burned, there is ONE THING you should always remember – it will burn again next year”. While I understand that things in that part of the country do not come back as fast as they do here in Florida, sooner or later unless it gets paved, it will burn again and no one’s life should ever under any circumstances be lost just to stop it from doing that today or any other day.

      • First of all: excellent article. My compliments.

        I’ve been a federal land management employee and FFT 2 for around 16 years now. In all that time I’ve never heard any wildland firefighter ever say he/she’d put personal safety over a structure. Ever. In fact I’ve heard exactly the opposite all these years. Time and time again. It’s simply “wrote” tradition and I believe stated policy. Could be wrong there but I don’t think so. So the decision to save an abandoned ranch house during a blow-up doesn’t make a lot of sense in any light except if there was already some kind of written or spoken policy or agency tendency to do so. I’m not the most experienced FFT2 out there but I can tell you this.. I’d never give my squad’s safety zone away for something an insurance company will eventually replace. You gotta be kidding me. I’d do it to save lives of course. But property? We gotta quit treating “investment” like it’s someone’s child, in this country. An organized pile of boards and nails… traded for 19 lives? If that was indeed an organizational policy then whoever is responsible has seriously “lost his way” on core principles and ethics. What an unimaginable waste.

      • To one of the many points that the article brings up.
        “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?”
        This might be a valid question and thought if you live anywhere but in Prescott. Prescott Fire has not at all blended Wildland with the Structural together in terms of Training or operational management. The crew was dedicated Wildland Fire Fighters many including my son worked for the US Forest Service. Other than Division Chief Willis whom is the retired PFD Chief and it is my understanding that he has served more than his fair share of Line time. None of the crew members came from structural or suppression.
        So Mr. Olson, I see that you stand by your comments 100%. This leads me to believe you must not know the GMHS crew and how things worked over there very well.
        The GMHS is a way for Wildland fire fighters from other agencies came to work for them in hopes, of which many had, to make their way to the “structure” part of the department to have more home time. As far as guys from the structural side rotating back in, if and when this happens, they happen to be Alumni of the wildland division. I realize that you confirm that thought in your above post. But it also seems like you imagine near retirees are rotated in for their retirement build. That is the lower engine type crews that are leased to the Feds from hundreds of Fire Departments around the west.

          • Mr. Turbyfill, here is a copy of the email I sent Darrell Willis on July 8, 2013.

            I am truly sorry my comments regarding this incident have offended you. That is the last thing in the world I intended to do. I had actually hoped my words would lessen the impact on the crew since “they” always blame the firefighter when something goes wrong.

            From: gary olson
            To: “darrell.willis@prescott-az.gov”
            Sent: Monday, July 8, 2013 1:52 PM
            Subject: packets

            Darrell,

            I hope you got the packets okay. It was very hard putting them together and writing all 19 names one after the other. I can not imagine how hard it will be on you to give the packets to the families. I’m sorry to put this on you, but I know nothing about this has been easy on you and it is not going to get any better, for anyone, for a very, very, long time.

            I can’t tell you how bad I feel and how much I wish I could change things. I still can’t believe this happened and that is how I feel and I did not even know any of the 19 personally, but they were still part of my wildland firefighting family because that is and always has been where my real interests are.

            I hope the families will consider the patches and challenge coins to be from all wildland firefighters. I pray the challenge coins will give some of them something to hold on to during the darkest of times. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

            Gary

  19. There appears to be some confusion as to the what a Division Supervisor can and can not do. A Division Supervisor is just that, in charge of a division, not the entire fire. He works for the Operations Chief or the Incident Commander, if an Operations Chief is not assigned, these two positions have all the suppression responsibility for the fire. For Marsh to make such a radical change in the assignment of any crew on his division he must discuss and receive permission from the Operations Chief or IC. Marsh had no authority to abandon the crews line assignment and decide to try and protect a structure 1/2 mile away. Also, the decision to not initial attack this fire the evening of the ignition was totally wrong and unfortunately resulted in tragedy & over a 5 million dollar suppression cost. A proper initial attack would of saved 19 lives and cost less then 10 thousand dollars. The lack of a proper and an aggressive initial attack on wildfires these days by all responsible agencies are in part creating these mega fires, costing millions to suppress and allowing large numbers of crews increasing exposure to a hazardous environment. The suppression cost for federal wildland firefighting as exceeded 1 billion dollars just this year.

  20. I live in Tucson and know nothing about fighting wildfires but I read every word of this fascinating and well-written article. As a public official I know that even apparently strong journalism can omit important facts in ways that the reader cannot easily perceive, but from what I see this is an outstanding piece and gives me hope that strong investigative journalism will somehow survive the steady decline of our major newspapers and the television networks’ news bureaus.

    • Now that it is October and the Yarnell Hill Fire Investigative Report has come out, and it did exactly what many had predicted it would do by ultimately finding “no indication of negligence, reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol” — still, I would be interested in learning what your reactions are to the many aspects of this document.

      I am really uneasy with the way this report seems to (and correct me if I am wrong here) promote a trend in firefighting that is away from the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders and the Eighteen Watchout Situations (as if it’s just ‘Old School’ material now) while promoting what appears to be more of a ‘New School’ of guidelines, such as the emphasis on a crew’s “culture of engagement” and other matters.

      Feel reasonably sure you probably have many thoughts on what this report had to say (and what it didn’t have to say) as well as what changes may come about as a result of it. And am hoping that the late date in posting this comment (inquiry) is not so late that you are unable to reply.

  21. Great article. Nice to see someone investigate a story. The national media just wanted a hero story to fill the pages for a couple days, but those young men are dead and their children orphans and someone needs to look into making sure that doesn’t happen again.

  22. Great article John, I think you have explained the problem and situation very well. I stand by everything you quoted me as saying 100%. Thank you for shining some light on this absolutely horrific and completely preventable tragedy.

    • This is an important piece of journalism that is rare these days. John Dougherty just saved the lives of many future wildland firefighter by derailing a death cult that glorifies “heroes” who can only attain that status when their dead, and no longer a budgetary burden.

    • Thank you for reporting this. Thank you for allowing your comments to be reported. We are not heroes, we are wildland firefighters and the only way we become heroes is when we die. We need to stop this mentality from taking hold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>