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Granite Mountain Hotshots Were Asked If They Could Protect Yarnell

Granite Mountain Hotshots Were Asked If They Could Protect Yarnell
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

A state fire supervisor asked the Granite Mountain Hotshots whether they could assist in Yarnell minutes before the 19-member crew left a burned-over safety zone along a mountain ridge and began its descent into a chaparral-choked box canyon where the men died in a firestorm.

See also: Complete coverage of the Yarnell Hill Fire here

The request, which was not disclosed in the Serious Accident Investigation Report commissioned by the Arizona Forestry Division (released in late September), provides important new insight into why the Granite Mountain crew decided to abandon their safe position as a powerful thunderstorm rapidly approached the wildfire raging below.

Hikers took this photo of the Granite Mountain Hotshots marching up a trail. They died later that day.
Hikers took this photo of the Granite Mountain Hotshots marching up a trail. They died later that day.
courtesy of Joy Collura
A July 19 memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots
A July 19 memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots
photo courtesy of AZFS

According to a detailed report released December 4 by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health on the state's management of the Yarnell Hill Fire, Forestry Division Planning Operations Section Chief Paul Musser asked a Granite Mountain Hotshot leader, about 4 p.m. on June 30, "if [he] could spare resources to assist in Yarnell."

Residents of the community were under a mandatory evacuation order at that time.

Musser, according to the ADOSH report, was uncertain whether he was talking to Granite Mountain Supervisor Eric Marsh or to crew Captain Jesse Steed.

It appears that Granite Mountain initially refused the request.

"Either Marsh or ... Steed responded that they were committed to the black (safe zone) and that Musser should contact" the Blue Ridge Hotshots who already were working on the valley floor near Yarnell, the ADOSH report says.

But moments later, at 4:01 p.m., Granite Mountain crew member Chris MacKenzie captured a fragment of a crucial radio conversation between Marsh and Steed. The 18-second video appears to have been edited into two parts. MacKenzie soon died along with the other 18 crew members, but his video camera was recovered.

In the video, Marsh's voice can be heard coming from a radio held by Steed. "I was just saying, I knew this was coming when I called you and asked what your comfort level was," Marsh said in the first short video. "I could just feel it, you know."

The video fades and then picks up with Steed stating, "The fire had almost made it to the two-track road" on which they had hiked in that morning.

Following this conversation, the ADOSH report states, Granite Mountain and Marsh "decided to move their position."

Musser and Field Operations Section Chief Todd Abel, who had direct command over Granite Mountain during the Yarnell Hill Fire, "reportedly were not aware" of the route Marsh and Granite Mountain would take, the ADOSH report states.

It is unclear why Musser made a request for Granite Mountain to move when the crew was under Abel's direct supervision. "It's kind of odd that they both seemed to be" communicating with Granite Mountain in a relatively brief time frame, says a senior firefighter involved in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

A few minutes before Musser's request, at 3:45 p.m., Abel and Marsh had a radio conversation and discussed the approaching thunderstorm and their concerns about its possible effect on the fire, the ADOSH report says. At that time, Marsh did not suggest that the crew planned to move.

"Marsh reportedly stated that Granite Mountain was safe and in the black," the ADOSH report states.

But a few minutes later, after Musser's call to the crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were on the move. Marsh then had a brief conversation with an airborne fire manager. The communication was included in an earlier investigative report commissioned by the Forestry Division and released in September.

Marsh, according to the Serious Accident Investigation Report, said, "We're going down our escape route to our safety zone." The airborne supervisor then asked, "Is everything okay?" to which Marsh replied, "Yes, we're just moving."

Marsh, according to the recently released ADOSH report, provided additional details about the crew's movement when he told Blue Ridge Superintendent Brian Frisby via radio that Granite Mountain members were "picking our way through the black" in the direction of a road "in the bottom out towards the ranch."

The place to which Marsh referred apparently was the Boulder Springs Ranch about 600 yards east of where the Granite Mountain crew wound up deploying their fire shelters. Frisby, however, understood Marsh to be saying the crew was moving along a different road where Marsh and Frisby had met earlier in the day and toward a different ranch, the ADOSH report states.

The radio conversation between Frisby and Marsh now looms as a crucial moment in the events leading up to the catastrophic burn-over. Frisby's account of his communication with Marsh was included in written documentation that Blue Ridge turned over to ADOSH investigators.

But ADOSH's attempt to interview Frisby directly was blocked repeatedly by the U.S. Forest Service. The Blue Ridge Hotshots are assigned to the Coconino National Forest and based in the small Mogollon Rim community of Happy Jack.

"It should be noted that the United States Department of Agriculture-Forest Service denied ADOSH's requests to interview" the Blue Ridge Hotshots, the report mentions. The mysterious 18-second video reportedly was made available to Forestry's Serious Accident Investigation Team in July, but it was not included in the team's investigation report publicly released on September 28. The Prescott Courier, however, posted the video on its website the same morning that the report was released.

In an accompanying story, the Courier reported that MacKenzie's father provided a copy to Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were part of the city's Wildland Division. Willis turned over the video to the Serious Accident Investigation Team, Prescott spokesman Pete Wertheim says.

It is unknown why the video and Musser's communication with Granite Mountain leadership were not included in the Forestry Division-sponsored report. Jim Karels, the Florida State Forester who headed the team that wrote the report, did not respond to requests for an interview.

The Forestry Division did not respond to New Times' request for comment about Musser's conversation with Granite Mountain leadership.

The ADOSH report cited a number of crucial mistakes by the Arizona Forestry Division that first were uncovered by New Times in articles published in August and October, including:

• State Forestry failed to have a required safety officer present at the fire who could have closely monitored Granite Mountain's movements and interceded to prevent the crew from moving into a dangerous area.

• The state did not prepare required fire-analysis reports crucial to proper fire-control management. The failure prevented fire managers from "proactively" battling the blaze and instead forced them to continually react to events as they unfolded.

• Forestry's emphasis on protecting structures ahead of firefighter safety led to the deployment of firefighters into dangerous situations to attempt to protect property that was "indefensible."

• The Division did not adequately consider that the Granite Mountain crew could have been fatigued from working 28 days in June, including 26 days fighting fires, and had just come off a 16-hour shift the day before. (June 30, when the crew was incinerated, was its regularly scheduled day off.) Consequently, fatigue may have been a factor in the hotshots' decision to move out of the safe zone as the wildfire intensified and a thunderstorm rapidly approached.

On December 4, the state Industrial Commission approved ADOSH's recommendation to issue three workplace citations against the Forestry Division and fine it $559,000. The fines include a $25,000 payment to the survivors of each Granite Mountain hotshot. Forestry has until December 26 to appeal the citations.

The ADOSH report also reveals new, important facts ignored or hidden by investigators who produced the Serious Accident Investigation Report released three months ago. This failure to disclose crucial information -- including Musser's conversation with Granite Mountain leaders and the 18-second video -- has undermined the state Forestry Division-commissioned report's credibility, according to expert sources interviewed by New Times.

"I don't think anybody should be trusting that first report anymore," comments retired wildfire death investigator Ted Putnam, who long has questioned wildfire-investigation reports sponsored by involved agencies. "My real concern after having watched this over the years is that the coverups are getting worse."

The ADOSH report, sources say, raises the specter of an ongoing coverup because of the U.S. Forest Service's refusal to allow Blue Ridge Hotshots to be interviewed.

"Until this week, I have never heard of the USFS refusing to allow [its] firefighters to provide information about a fire, fatality, or otherwise," says Bill Gabbert, a retired wild-lands firefighter who publishes the online publication Wildfire Today. "I assume they did it to protect [their agency] from possible criminal charges or civil suits."

The ADOSH report discloses for the first time that Granite Mountain's sole survivor, who acted as a lookout, also faced possible death and serious injury. Prescott Fire Department officials and the Forestry Division-commissioned report maintained that Brendan McDonough was not in immediate danger even though the fire overran his lookout position within minutes of his abandoning the post.

In addition to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the ADOSH reports states, another 61 firefighters also faced serious injury or death. Those threats occurred while they fought the fire as it approached Peeples Valley at midday and later during a last-minute evacuation from Yarnell and Glen Ilah as powerful downdrafts from a collapsing thunderstorm created a conflagration that shot smoke and embers more than 37,000 feet into the air.

"It's amazing that they didn't lose a lot more firefighters," says Gary Olson, a retired hotshot superintendent and former criminal investigator for the federal Bureau of Land Management. "In my 10 years on the fire line, at no time did I ever experience anything that came close to the scenario . . . described in the ADOSH report."

***

 

A cloud rises over Yarnell on June 30, shortly after the hotshots radioed that the crew was deploying emergency shelters.
A cloud rises over Yarnell on June 30, shortly after the hotshots radioed that the crew was deploying emergency shelters.
photo courtesy of AZFS

The Yarnell Hill Fire was dangerously out of control and threatening the lives of other firefighters nearly four hours before the Granite Mountain Hotshots became trapped at the base of a box canyon at 4:42 p.m. on June 30.

Three miles from where the Granite Mountain crew perished, 31 firefighters were assigned to protect a ranch near Peeples Valley. The situation there quickly spiraled out of control -- demonstrating that the Granite Mountain burn-over was far from an isolated event but instead was the dreadful conclusion of a chaotic day during which scores of firefighters narrowly escaped serious injury or death.

By 10:30 a.m. on the morning of June 30, the wildfire's 1 1/2-mile-wide leading front surged northward toward Peeples Valley, where firefighters under the command of Wildland Division Chief Willis were attempting to protect a handful of structures.

According to the ADOSH report, Willis quickly determined that seven buildings at the Double Bar-A Ranch were all high risk -- that there was a low probability they could be saved.

Nevertheless, 31 firefighters under Willis' command continued efforts to protect the ranch after receiving a noon warning from an airborne fire manager that the rapidly advancing inferno threatened to cut off their only escape route.

Between 12:30 and 1 p.m., two converted DC-10 planes dropped two lines of fire retardant in a last-ditch effort to slow the northward march of the blaze. Willis saw the fire slow down slightly only to quickly intensify and burn through the retardant line and continue toward the ranch compound, according to the ADOSH report.

Despite the fire's increasing threat, there still was no order for the firefighters to retreat. About 1 p.m., most of the firemen under Willis' command at the Double Bar-A Ranch made a stunning decision.

A 20-member hand crew of inmates from the Yuma state prison "packed-up and left" the fire ground, the ADOSH report says. Willis did not disclose in his "Unit Log" operational report for June 29 and 30, filed with Prescott Fire Department, that the prison crew left the fire.

He eventually ordered the remaining 11 firefighters to retreat about 2:30 p.m. The ranch buildings subsequently burned to the ground.

ADOSH determined that not only were the firefighters facing the possibility of serious injury or death, a tennis court designated as their safety zone "was known to be too small for the approaching 40-foot-long flames."

That Willis or state fire managers designated a tennis court as a safety zone for 31 firefighters facing such a serious threat outraged retired wildfire fatality investigator Dick Mangan, who now runs a wildfire private-consulting business in Missoula, Montana.

Mangan was a lead investigator on the 1994 South Canyon fire where 14 firefighters died.

"That's totally stupid to say a tennis court is going to be a safety zone," he says. "That's idiocy of the first order."

Willis did not answer questions concerning the prison crew's decision to abandon its post and on the lack of an adequate safety zone. The queries were e-mailed to him and to public-information officer Wertheim, who advised that city legal staff had advised the chief not to comment because a notice of claim (the precursor to a lawsuit) has been filed against the city regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire.

***

 

Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis
Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis
John Dougherty

At the same time the wild fire closed in on Darrell Willis' firefighters on the north end of the blaze, another indication of the state's management breakdown unfolded on its south end.

The Forestry Division deployed a bare-bones management team to the fire on the morning of June 30 that did not include safety officers or division supervisors to oversee the field operations of hand crews, including the two hotshot units.

During an informal morning meeting, Field Operations Section Chief Abel appointed Granite Mountain Superintendent Marsh as a supervisor to oversee a geographic area on the southwest side of the fire designated Division A. Granite Mountain's captain, Steed, took over direct command of the remaining 18 hotshots.

In his role as division supervisor for the Forestry Division, Marsh was placed in charge of his Granite Mountain crew, a decision wildfire experts say removed a crucial link in the chain of command. Granite Mountain, experts say, should have reported to an independent division supervisor unaffiliated with the crew who could provide an arm's-length analysis of key decisions.

Forestry Division officials also appointed BLM firefighter Rance Marquez as the Division Zulu supervisor in charge of a geographic area immediately east of Marsh's Division A. Marquez, who was to be in charge of Blue Ridge Hotshot operations, had not yet arrived on the scene.

Lacking guidance, Marsh and Blue Ridge Hotshot Superintendent Frisby met shortly before noon to discuss tactics.

"Frisby reported to Marsh that he attended a poor morning briefing" and that "radio communications problems" were affecting overall operations, the ADOSH report says. Marsh and Frisby then agreed on their own plan of how to build a fire line intended to protect Yarnell and Glen Ilah.

Marquez arrived at the fire about an hour later, about 1 p.m., and he, too, had problems with his radio.

Marquez spoke to Frisby in person and communicated with Marsh using Frisby's radio. Marsh and Marquez could not come to an agreement over tactics. An airborne supervisor heard the discussion and "radioed command instructions for Frisby, Marsh, and Marquez," the ADOSH report states.

But, according to the report, Marsh disagreed and radioed back the plans he had developed earlier with Frisby. Marquez then left the field and went to the Incident Command Center at a nearby school.

It is unclear what happened at the command center, but the ADOSH report states that Marquez "never returned" to command Division Zulu. Marquez's sudden departure left Division Zulu without a direct field commander, a situation described by wildfire experts as extremely unusual.

"That doesn't occur," says Will Spyrison, a retired wild-lands firefighter who has developed a portable fire-management system for tablet computers. "The only reason [Marquez] should leave is to go to a safety zone and remain in command and control" of his crews.

The ADOSH report states that Marquez's absence prevented the performance of a number of crucial duties, including implementation of a risk-management process to ensure firefighter safety and coordination of activities with adjacent divisions, including Marsh's Division A.

Marquez did not immediately return a phone call or an e-mail sent to his business account requesting comment about the ADOSH report.

The lack of direct oversight left fire crews uncertain about when to evacuate from Yarnell and Glen Ilah as the winds shifted from the west. Fire managers abandoned the command post at 3:30 p.m., because of the impending threat of getting overrun by the blaze, but they did not order crews to evacuate from Yarnell and Glen Ilah as the fire raced toward the communities, the ADOSH report states.

Nearly 30 firefighters still were on the fire lines as late as 4:30 p.m. when the fire reached the perimeter of Glen Ilah.

"Firefighters on the ground could not see the flaming front as the sky was dark and the atmosphere smoky," the ADOSH report says. "Crew members drove through extreme smoke, ash, and blowing embers to escape the fire."

***

 

A Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt placed at the site where the men were killed
A Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt placed at the site where the men were killed
John Dougherty

The ADOSH report widely is considered a major step forward in explaining the events that led up to the deaths of the 19 Granite Mountain crew members. But the report has flaws.

It does not close a lengthy communication gap with Granite Mountain from the time the crew began its descent from the mountain ridge until moments before it was forced to deploy fire shelters as it faced a wall of flames leaping toward its position at 4:42 p.m. The U.S. Forest Service's refusal to cooperate with the investigation could have hindered efforts to better understand the crew's final moments.

And, like those producing the Forestry Division-commissioned report, ADOSH report investigators apparently did not obtain and review cell-phone records to determine whether Granite Mountain crew members communicated with fire managers during the period that the decision to move off the mountain was made.

ADOSH commissioned Wildland Fire Associates, of Brentwood, Missouri, to write a narrative of events leading up to Granite Mountain's entrapment. The narrative mistakenly states that the Forestry Division had a hotshot crew at the fire on June 29. In fact, Forestry had only deployed a six-member inmate crew from the Arizona State Prison-Lewis to fight the fire initially. The first hotshot crews did not arrive until June 30.

The ADOSH report also fails to mention two important Forestry Division assessments about potential major damage to communities, made at 12:30 p.m. and at 2:22 p.m. on June 30. Despite the bleak outlook, mandatory evacuations were not ordered for Yarnell residents.

In the first overview, state Fire Management Officer David Geyer gave a detailed accounting of the number of homes and businesses threatened by the fire, stating that 700 residences in Yarnell were at risk. Geyer also said the narrow roads within the communities prevented emergency vehicles from responding to the fire at the same time residents were evacuating.

"The area has not experienced a large fire in 45 years, and there is severe undergrowth," he said.

Two hours later, incident commander Roy Hall provided a remarkably upbeat update even as the wildfire raged out of control devouring hundreds of acres an hour.

"Things going well," Hall told state dispatchers at 2:22 p.m. "Impact should be kept to under 100 homes in Yarnell."

While Hall may have thought limiting damage to 100 homes was a positive outcome, the state's fire-management team did not get around to sharing this news with Yarnell residents until 3:30 p.m., when a mandatory evacuation order finally was issued.

The late notice left little time for many community residents to flee the fast-approaching blaze. It was just another example of a badly managed fire that resulted in the worst loss of life ever suffered by a national hotshot crew.

"They didn't have a clue," retired firefighter Spyrison says about Arizona managers of the Yarnell Hill Fire. "They didn't follow professional standards."

E-mail feedback@newtimes.com.

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