A long anticipated field presentation scheduled Tuesday by the state Forestry Division for the family members of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots that will take survivors to the site where their loved ones died is being sharply criticized for failing to accurately portray what happened.
The Yarnell site visit uses a military “staff ride” format where participants are taken to different locations on the fire ground and wildfire experts provide presentations on the best available information about the events that led up to the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30, 2013 at the Yarnell Hill Fire. A “facilitator guide” has also been prepared that provides detailed information about key events in the days before and on the day of the fire.
The tour and presentation is touted by the state as a way to provide the families facts about the fire and offer an opportunity for a healing experience.
“This product is a true legacy of your loved one that will educate firefighters across the nation and put them in the shoes and decision making process’ of the Granite Mountain Hotshots,” Don Boursier safety and logistic officer for the Arizona Forestry Division, states in a Feb. 25 email to family members.
But one of the nation’s leading wildfire fatality experts who has participated in such events in the past is sharply criticizing the information that will be presented to family members as being an inaccurate and misleading portrayal of the events.
“I think the staff ride is an insult to all of their loved ones because it hasn’t yet told the truth,” says Ted Putnam, a retired wildfire fatality investigator and Chino Valley resident who has been conducting an unofficial investigation of the Yarnell Hill Fire. “The biggest tribute we should do for these firefighters is to tell the truth.”
Putnam was provided a copy of the facilitator guide that will be used during the staff ride by InvestigativeMEDIA, which obtained it from the Forestry Division through a request under the Arizona Public Records Law.
Putnam says he has direct information from multiple firefighter sources who were at the fire in conjunction with evidence contained in investigation reports that leave no doubt in his mind that Arizona Forestry Division fire supervisors ordered Granite Mountain to come off the mountain and go to Yarnell.
“I’ve been in this business longer and know more about this than anybody out there and this all screams at me they were ordered off the top (of the mountain),” Putnam says.
Putnam, a former smoke jumper, served as an investigator on high-profile fatal wildfires including the 1990 Dude Fire in Arizona and the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado. Putnam is considered one of the leading experts in wildland fire entrapments and has been cited by many as “the pioneer in advancing scientific knowledge in this area.”
Putnam gained notoriety when he refused to sign the official accident investigation report for the South Canyon Fire where 14 hotshots and smoke jumpers were killed because he believed the report was untrue. Putnam has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Montana.
Putnam’s claim directly contradicts the official version of events included in the forestry division’s Serious Accident Investigation Report that was released in September 2013, and there is no mention of such an order in the upcoming staff ride documentation.
The SAIR concluded that no one knows why the crew descended from a safe, burned-over area called ‘the black’ on the top of the Weaver Mountains and dropped into a box canyon jammed with drought-stricken chaparral at the hottest time of the day with the wildfire approaching and a massive thunderstorm bearing down.
“No one realized that the crew left the black and headed southeast, sometime after 1604 (4:04 p.m.),” the SAIR report states.
Putnam says the report’s conclusion defies logic. Putnam does not believe that Granite Mountain Hotshot superintendent Eric Marsh would have ordered his crew to leave its safe zone unless he was pressured by superiors to get the crew to Yarnell. At the time the crew moved off the mountain, the fire was sweeping into Yarnell forcing evacuations of many residents.
“Marsh’s action make no sense at all unless he was ordered off the top,” Putnam says.
Putnam says he cannot reveal his sources because they provided the information under the promise of confidentiality. But, Putnam says, he would provide complete details in a trial or other formal setting where he was asked to testify under oath.
State Forestry Director Jeff Whitney requested a meeting early Monday with InvestigativeMEDIA to respond to Putnam’s statements. But Whitney walked out of the interview without saying a word when this reporter began to set up a video camera to record the interview.
A few minutes later, Joy Hernbrode, deputy director of administrative services for the forestry division, agreed to appear on camera.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that supports Mr. Putnam’s claims, so I don’t know what he’s built his belief on,” Hernbrode says. “But we have looked at all the evidence in the state report, the videos, and it is our opinion that there isn’t any evidence that anybody was ordered off that mountain. However, if somebody has evidence of that, we definitely would like to see it.”
Audio evidence has surfaced in records released by the state Forestry Division that show Marsh was communicating about the crew’s movements during a 30-minute period the SAIR states there were no verifiable communications from the crew.
A video clip shot by Blue Ridge Hotshot Ronald Gamble at 4:27 p.m. picks up an audio exchange between an unknown firefighter and Marsh.
While it is difficult to hear clearly the unknown firefighter, it sounds like he is saying, “Copy…coming down and appreciate it if you could go a little faster, but you’re the supervisor.”
Marsh was assigned as a Division supervisor on the morning of June 30, and Steed assumed command of the Granite Mountain crew.
A few seconds later, Marsh replies, “Ah, they’re coming from the heel of the fire.”
Marsh’s widow, Amanda Marsh, confirmed it was her late husband’s voice.
Hernbrode says the video does not prove anybody ordered the crew to leave the mountain.
“I don’t know who he’s (Marsh) talking to,” she says. “More experienced fire folks than I have looked at that and could not conclude that was evidence that anybody ordered them off.”
Additional evidence of communications between Marsh and other unknown firefighters during the reported black out period also surfaced in background audio of an aerial firefighting effectiveness study that was being conducted during the Yarnell Hill Fire. These audio clips were included in the supplemental materials released with the SAIR but never included in the formal report.
The staff ride is required under a June 2015 settlement agreement reached with 12 of the families who had filed a $220 million federal lawsuit against the forestry division. The agreement required the state to pay the 12 families a total of $600,000 and to admit to no wrongdoing.
Among the records released by the forestry division is the Yarnell Hill Staff Ride Facilitator Guide that was prepared for a trial staff ride on Feb. 17-18 and the facilitator guide for Tuesday’s site visit with Granite Mountain families.
OMNA International, a private contractor that specializes in preparing staff rides for wildfire fatality sites as well as military battlegrounds including Gettysburg, prepared the guides under a contract with the U.S. Forest Service, according to Bill Boyd, forestry division public affairs and legislative officer.
The guides provide no new information concerning the events that led up to Granite Mountain’s entrapment that was not presented in the SAIR.
The SAIR has been roundly criticized for its conclusion that nobody did anything wrong despite the fact 19 “elite” firefighters died in a box canyon full of explosive desert scrub at the hottest time of the day with rapidly changing weather conditions.
Putnam says the SAIR – without directly saying so – is essentially blaming the Granite Mountain Hotshot leaders, superintendent Eric Marsh, and Captain Jesse Steed, for making unilateral decisions that led the crew to their deaths.
“They are saying virtually all the mistakes were made by Eric and Jesse, and the crew pretty much did this to themselves,” Putnam says.
There’s no question, Putnam says, that Marsh and Steed made terrible decisions to move the crew into the box canyon and that both men should have refused to follow any orders or directives requesting they move the crew.
But, Putnam says, those decisions were not made in a vacuum and that incident commanders are equally responsible.
“The incident management team screwed up just as bad as Eric (Marsh), and Steed did,” he says.
The facilitator guides also do not include any reference to findings by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health in its investigation of the fire.
ADOSH issued two workplace safety citations against the forestry division for its mishandling of the fire that began on the evening of June 28, 2013. The citations were later dismissed in conjunction with the settlement agreement with the families.
The guide that will be presented to the families does not discuss that a number of basic wildland firefighting rules were violated by the Granite Mountain crew in the moments leading up to its entrapment, including moving through desert shrubs without a lookout and not knowing the location of the fire.
Kelly Zombro, a retired former deputy chief for CAL FIRE, who attended the Feb. 17-18 trial staff ride later wrote the forestry division urging it to include a section where attendees review the basic wildland firefighter rules of engagement.
“Perhaps there would be value in adding a page in the book (facilitator guide) that allows participants to review the 10 and 18 and LCES, a back to basics perspective which is what the crew was operating from,” Zombro stated in a Feb. 22 email to the forestry division. “Challenge the attendees to find weak points once the course is completed.”
While Zombro’s suggestion was ignored, the forestry division and OMNA International did incorporate some of the suggestions made by Mark Kaib, southwest deputy regional fire management coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, for the family presentation.
Kaib, in a detailed critique of the February staff ride, questioned the guide’s characterization that Granite Mountain was a very knowledgeable and accomplished crew in the type of terrain and vegetation that was present in Yarnell.
“That’s a difficult one to support,” he states.
Kaib also questioned whether Granite Mountain leadership allowed the threat to a community only 45 miles from Prescott to “blind their fire behavior situational awareness and risk-assessment process?”
“GMIHC did have good experience and knowledge,” Kaib stated, “but was their experience only sufficient enough to give them the self-confidence to take on greater, possibly unjustified risks?”
The guide that will be used by families includes several factual errors, leaves out a key event in the timeline, and misquotes a crucial conversation among other shortcomings including changing critical times of key events.
The guide incorrectly states that six inmates from the Yuma state prison were assigned to the Yarnell Hill fire on June 29. The inmates actually were from the Lewis state prison. The six inmates ran out of chainsaw fuel shortly before the fire jumped a two-track road on the afternoon of June 29 and began to expand rapidly. There’s no mention of this in the facilitator guide.
In the description of Granite Mountain’s workload in the days leading up to the fire, the guide states the crew worked on a wildfire on June 28 but ignores the fact the crew was assigned to a fire near Prescott on June 29 and reportedly worked 16 hours, according to billing records.
Nor is there any mention that Sunday, June 30 was the crew’s scheduled day off and that the crew had worked 28 of the previous 30 days.
Both the February guide and the updated guide change a crucial conversation captured in a video by one of the hotshots moments before the crew left the top of the mountain and decided to move towards Yarnell by descending into a box canyon packed with volatile chaparral.
In a section called “Tactical Decision Game,” the February guide asks participants to pretend they are Steed, who just received a radio call from Marsh, and discuss what the conversation means.
The February guide states that Marsh asks Steed: “what (sic) are you seeing and what is your comfort level?”
The latest version of the guide states that Marsh asks Steed: “Hey, what do you think about bumping down to where we can do some good?”
In fact, the dialogue between Marsh and Steed was much different and suggests that there was a disagreement between the two men about a decision, perhaps on whether to move to Yarnell.
“Ah, I just, I’m just saying I knew this was coming when I called you and asked how your comfort level was. I could just feel it, you know,” Marsh says.
A second video clip picks up the conversation a few seconds later. It’s unknown why there is a gap in the video. In the second clip, Steed tells Marsh, who is in an unknown location but apparently in a place where he could not see the fire, that “the fire had almost made it to the two-track road” on which they had hiked in that morning.
The facilitator guide does not address where Marsh might have been. Nor does it include subsequent information widely reported in 2015 that the crew’s sole survivor, Brendon McDonough, heard Marsh and Steed argue over the crew’s radio frequency whether to move the crew, with Marsh eventually ordering Steed, a former Marine, to move.
The two video clips were taken with Granite Mountain hotshot Chris MacKenzie’s Canon video camera. The camera survived the fire intact and was included in MacKenzie’s list of belongings during his autopsy on July 2, 2013, conducted by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner.
The camera, however, did not go directly from the medical examiner’s office to the Serious Accident Investigation Team but was instead sent to MacKenzie’s father, who later discovered it was still functioning. The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office was in charge of gathering evidence from the medical examiner’s office and providing it to wildfire investigators.
Among the experts who made presentations during the initial staff ride was former Prescott Wildlands Division Chief Darrell Willis, who oversaw the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Willis said in a July 23, 2013, interview at the deployment site that “we’ll never know” why the crew moved off the mountain but that he believes they were doing it to protect structures in Yarnell.
“It’s just one of those things that happened,” Willis said. “You can call it an accident. I just say God had a different plan for that crew at this time.” (At 12:31)
The family guide also includes a 1930 essay “The Courage to Be” written by John A. Lejeune and a one-page open letter to the City of Prescott written in March 2013 by Marsh during a period when the Prescott City Council was considering eliminating the crew.
Lejeune’s essay glorifies death of brave Marines who followed the orders of a strong and just leader.
“If each man knows that all the officers and men in his division are animated with the same fiery zeal as he himself feels, unquenchable courage and unconquerable determination crush out fear, and death becomes preferable to defeat and dishonor,” Lejeune states.
Marsh sought in his letter to explain who the hotshots are and their work ethic.
“We are not nameless or faceless, we are not expendable, we are not satisfied with mediocrity, we are not willing to accept being average, we are not quitters…” he wrote. “We don’t just call ourselves hotshots. We are hotshots in everything we do.”© Copyright 2016 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA