Jasper, Alberta—Three years ago today, at 4:42 p.m., 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed when a fast-moving wildfire entrapped them in a box canyon at the base of the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell, AZ.
Since that day of wildland firefighting infamy, three books have been published that have yet to answer why the men were in a location they should never have been. And now, a major Hollywood movie is in production that will ultimately completely distort what happened on that tragic afternoon. (How could you, Jeff Bridges?)
More than 22,000 comments have been posted on this site, some of which have helped piece together much of what happened on the worst day of firefighting in the history of Interagency Hotshot Crews after two state-sponsored investigations failed to provide a clear explanation.
But the ultimate “Why”, remains sealed, locked in the code of silence that permeates the world of wildland firefighting where the fear of telling the truth falls a distant third to securing a high-dollar government pension and avoid being blacklisted.
The answer to how this disaster occurred has been deliberately obscured by a confederacy of silence, inept investigations, shameful legal obstruction and bureaucratic stonewalling.
Instead, the powers-that-be shamefully amplify the myth of the hero to bury the truth, a disgusting, but a time-tested tactic, that a too often compliant news media has been happy to bolster with tear-jerk, mush-and-milk journalism instead of persistent, hard-nosed reporting that a catastrophe of this proportion demands.
Yarnell bears no resemblance in any way to the fearless and courageous New York City first responders ascending the steps of the twin towers only to be ground to dust by the collapsing sky scrappers on September 11, 2001.
Yarnell only has victims.
Nineteen young men needlessly died when a combination of complex events, many of which were preventable, coincided to create a penultimate disaster that will reverberate for decades.
The fundamental failures of leadership on June 30, 2013, are staggering.
Yarnell is more equivalent to the reckless, thrill-junkie school bus driver gunning his Bluebird full of children to race across the railroad tracks as a fast-approaching freight train blasts its horn, warning lights flash, and crossing gates descend – and getting broadsided.
“It’s a time versus distance thing that I see,” Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis, who oversaw the Granite Mountain Hotshots, told the press during a July 25, 2013, press conference at the site where the 19 men perished in 2,000-degree flames. (See two videos of the press conference.)
A hotshot crew under competent leadership should never face a “time versus distance” equation where a miscalculation results in the death or injury of a single firefighter, let alone an entire crew.
Two of the men directly responsible for this disaster died on June 30. Crew Superintendent Eric Marsh and Captain Jesse Steed made the critical decisions that led the crew to the box canyon death trap.
Questions remain as to whether Marsh was requested/ordered by senior state fire commanders to move the crew from the safety of the “black” to Yarnell at a time when the community was under mandatory evacuation. There is certainly plenty of evidence indicating that senior fire commanders were quite aware that Granite Mountain was moving at an extremely dangerous time.
By all accounts, Steed was a solid leader and well respected by the hotshot crew. But Steed, a former U.S. Marine, did not refuse reports of Marsh’s order to leave the safety of the black and bring the crew down the mountain to meet their death in a box canyon, a place wildland firefighters know to fear.
“Anybody who has ever taken a wildlands class is warned about box canyons,” says former Yarnell Fire Chief Peter Andersen. “You might as well be standing in a fireplace — with the flue open.”
Marsh, who was not with the crew when it came off the mountain, joined the men moments before they were burned over. Clearly, this was a courageous action on his part, particularly if Marsh left a safe location to join his men facing extreme peril. But it is also akin to the captain going down with the ship. It’s expected.
Marsh and Steed were victims too. Victims of a wildfire philosophy that has spun out of control epitomized by the fact the Granite Mountain Hotshots were the only IHC in the country attached to a municipal fire department. Their marching orders were expanded, in no small part by Willis, to include structural protection, apparently, at any cost.
“It’s all speculation at this point and time, but in my heart, I would know they are not protecting themselves. They are going to go, and they are going to protect that ranch,” Willis said at the July 25, 2013, press conference. “They protected themselves as a last resort.”
The ranch Willis was referring is the Boulder Springs Ranch that was about 600 yards east of where the men died. Ironically, the same property was supposedly identified as a “bomb-proof safety” zone on the morning of June 30 by a senior fire commander in instructions to Marsh, raising questions why Granite Mountain was heading to “save” a place that didn’t need saving.
The state of Arizona’s shorthanded, underfunded and bumbling response to the Yarnell Hill Fire that started from a lightning strike on June 28 is also directly responsible for the disaster. The state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health lays out the keystone cops scenario, even with the U.S. Forest Service’s refusal to allow key federal firefighters from the Blue Ridge Hotshots and in airborne command aircraft to assist in its investigation.
But the ADOSH investigation and citations came to naught after a global settlement was reached between the families of the hotshots, the state Forestry Division, and ADOSH in June 2015. The state settled for a pittance after being sued for $237.5 million: $670,000 was paid out to the 19 families with the 12 families involved in a joint civil suit each receiving $50,000 and the other seven families awarded $10,000 each.
The Forest Service played its role in burying the truth by conducting an inept investigation on behalf of the state Arizona and issuing a Serious Accident Investigation Report that concluded nobody did anything wrong. Say what?
Heavily redacted Forest Service records obtain by InvestigativeMEDIA through a Freedom of Information Act request shows how hostile the agency was to anyone who raised questions about its absurd conclusion that everything was just fine at Yarnell and its deliberate decisions to ignore key information from hotshot crew leaders familiar with Granite Mountain’s checkered past.
The Arizona State Forestry Division, meanwhile, working through a contract with a private law firm, was unable to reach an agreement with ADOSH and the attorney of Granite Mountain’s lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, for McDonough to be deposed. The acrimonious exchange of emails (page 97-161) between the attorneys suggests a deliberate effort to scuttle the deposition that was scheduled just days before the two state agencies and survivors reached the global settlement.
Serving as a lookout, McDonough was not with his crew and narrowly escaped death when he was picked up by an ATV driven by Brian Frisby, the Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Hotshots, as the fire overran his position.
After his rescue, McDonough told investigators he sat in Marsh’s truck and turned up the crew’s radio channel. Amazingly, or perhaps on purpose, neither the Forest Service’s cursory interview nor ADOSH investigators, who twice interviewed McDonough (Aug. 20, 2013, and Oct. 10, 2013) asked the star witness the obvious question: “So, what did you hear?”
What he heard, according to published reports in early 2015 that were muddied with denials, was an argument between Marsh and Steed about moving the crew. Marsh wanted the crew to come off the mountain. Steed thought it was too dangerous. But Steed relented under a direct order from Marsh.
This exchange, clouded by McDonough’s denial that it occurred, is the closest description of what may have happened that has surfaced. McDonough, who published a book in May on his life story and the Yarnell Hill Fire, provided no new insights into what happened and, in fact, created more confusion by offering conflicting accounts of whether fire commanders were aware Granite Mountain was moving off the mountain.
The Arizona Forestry Division, which oversaw the Yarnell Hill debacle, brought in a new director in early 2015, a former hotshot named Jeff Whitney, who refers to himself as “Jefe” in emails to his staff. Whitney is in a position to know more about what happened in Yarnell than perhaps any other person. As a former hotshot superintendent, he’s part of an elite club that shares information through back channels.
And it was his staff that held a Feb. 5 meeting with the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to answer a comprehensive list of questions about what happened at Yarnell. (Not all the families were invited to the meeting, only the 12 families that agreed to settle their civil suit against the state. The state says it has no record of which families attended the meeting.)
Whitney isn’t sharing what the state and others told the families at the meeting. Instead, he’s hiding behind his desk, using attorneys and their heavy reliance on redacting state documents as if national defense secrets were threatened and press aides to brush off inquiries about one of the most tragic days in the history of Arizona.
What did the state tell the families about what happened on Yarnell Hill? Is this not public information?
Whitney’s arrogance (he walked out of an interview his staff requested when this reporter began setting up a video camera) fits perfectly with an attitude among many wildland firefighters that the public just wouldn’t understand how they do their jobs, so it is better just to keep them in the dark and continue the knee-jerk genuflecting at the feet of the “Hero”.
The state is taking another step to hide its colossal failure with the dedication of a new memorial state park for the Granite Mountain Hotshots scheduled for Nov. 30. It’s fitting to pay tribute to those men who died a most horrific death.
But the state’s memorial is also another step in a concerted effort to blur the past and wash its bloody hands.
The ultimate memorial is for those who know the details of what led to the deaths of 19 men to step forward and to tell the truth about what happened on June 30, 2013.
Those details include not only what happened on the ground, but the circumstances that created a scenario that spun completely out of control, including the clear lack of training that blinded the crew to the imminent danger it was facing.
Only then, will we honor the fallen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.© Copyright 2016 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA