Granite Mountain Hotshots Leader Violated Safety Protocols Prior to Firefighters' Deaths

The "deployment site," where the 19 firefighters died, is just beyond where the yellow line ends.
The "deployment site," where the 19 firefighters died, is just beyond where the yellow line ends.
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial via Facebook

The leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew apparently violated several wildfire-fighting safety protocols in the moments before 19 of the crew's 20 members were killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Eric Marsh, the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, was one of the 19 firefighters killed in the fire and was operating as a "division supervisor" at the time.

See also:
-Fire Chief Describes Events Leading Up to the Deaths of Granite Mountain Hotshots
-Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial Placed at Location Where 19 Firefighters Died

Jerry Payne, the Arizona State Forestry Division deputy director, told former New Times reporter John Dougherty that Marsh apparently ignored several wildfire-safety rules by not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter watching the fire, and leading his crew through unburned vegetation.

"The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk," Payne told Dougherty.

However, Payne added that a lot of decisions are made by those leading wildfire-fighting crews are more calculated risks, rather than strictly according to the rulebook.

"This is...a mistake that any [of] us [could] have made," Payne told Dougherty.

The aforementioned rules are part of a simple list of firefighting rules developed by the National Interagency Fire Center, called "18 Watch Out Situations."

The fire was perhaps two miles away from the Hotshot crew when Marsh led the crew into a box canyon, with a ranch just a few hundred yards away and residential housing beyond that.

Meanwhile, the incoming storm drastically changed the behavior of the fire. The crew may have anticipated having about an hour to reach the safety zone, at the ranch, but with the fire moving at 12 mph, that hour turned into minutes.

"It was a calculated risk. They didn't even make it halfway," Payne told Dougherty. "It was a serious miscalculation, in my opinion. It was an honest mistake."

As the firefighters moved into the box canyon, they didn't have a direct view of the fire, and Brendan McDonough, the lone survivor of the hotshot crew, was no longer spotting the fire for the rest of the crew, as his position as a lookout had been overrun by flames.

In addition to that, it appears that Marsh wasn't in contact with the aircraft spotters, although it's unclear at this point whether they were still in the air, as all aircraft had been grounded around the time the Hotshots moved into that canyon.

"The crew also had no clear escape route, but instead bushwacked through thick chaparral that slowed their movement down the hillside," Dougherty reports. "And finally, the hotshots did not have clear access to a safety zone if their path was cut off by fire."

The 19 firefighters deployed their fire shelters in that canyon and were all found dead after others located the deployment site.

There's still an interagency report on the deaths that is expected to be released by September, and Payne's agency, the state forestry division, is not involved in that investigation.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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