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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 Southwest Coordinating Group this week released an updated guideline for fighting wildfires in the “Wildland Urban Interface” and for structural protection.
“SWCG’s first and foremost intent is to protect human life (i.e. keep our firefighters and the public safe),” states the June 17 memo sent to Southwest Agency Administrators, incident commanders and zone chairs.
“Secondly, once firefighter and public safety has been established, firefighting responders and resources will work aggressively to keep any wildfire away from structures and communities.
“All strategies and tactics will be based on this intent; fully understanding we will not be able to protect structures in every situation.
“Management of risk to responders, fire behavior, resource availability, and other critical factors will all dictate and/or contribute to the appropriate strategy/strategies implemented.”
The memo was sent to the Arizona State Forestry Division, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, New Mexico State Forestry Division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
The memo concludes stating: “Wildland fire resources across the Southwest generally do not have the responsibility per policy as well as the the capability and training to perform structure fire suppression actions.”
The Tucson Weekly has published in its print and online editions InvestigativeMEDIA’s May 18 story on how U.S. Forest Service investigators contracted by the state to conduct the Yarnell Hill Fire investigation ignored warnings about Granite Mountain Hotshot’s superintendent’s history of dangerous and bad decisions.
The story is posted here.
The Yarnell Hill fire investigation conducted by the U.S. Forest Service deliberately ignored information provided by a former hotshot superintendent that the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots had a documented history of making bad decisions in violation of basic wildfire safety rules, federal records and interviews reveal.
A second former hotshot superintendent also contacted the Forest Service investigation leader, Mike Dudley, and reported that his conversations with Yarnell Hill wildfire supervisors immediately after the fire pointed to human error by the crew’s leaders as the only plausible explanation for what happen.
The communications are among 2,400 pages of records obtained by InvestigativeMEDIA from a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request. The records were released earlier this year and are heavily redacted even though the investigation was completed in September 2013.
Granite Mountain Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh’s decision-making was called into question by men who had directly worked with Marsh, or were aware of his reputation with other hotshot superintendents, in the weeks following the June 30, 2013, tragedy when Marsh and 18 members of his crew were overrun by fire. [Read more…]
InvestgativeMEDIA is releasing more than 2,000 pages of records obtained from the U.S. Forest Service under a Federal Freedom of Information Act request in connection with the Yarnell Hill fire.
The records are located here.
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. [Read more…]