Arizona State Forestry Division officials don't seem to be in agreement about a report that the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew made a few errors before he and 18 members of his crew died in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Former New Times reporter John Dougherty's original report in question cites Arizona Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne, saying how firefighter Eric Marsh broke a few wildfire-safety rules in the moments leading up to the crew being overrun by flames.
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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 forestry division released a statement to media "apologiz[ing] for Mr. Payne's inappropriate expression of opinion as fact and unfounded speculation that prejudges the ultimate conclusion of the investigation."
Then, the Arizona Republic and USA Today ran a story quoting forestry spokesman Jim Paxon, declaring Dougherty's report a "lie."
From the Republic and USA Today:
"Jerry Payne says he did not utter any words that condemned or pointed a finger at Eric Marsh," Paxon said. "Mr. Dougherty took extreme liberties and drew his own conclusions . . . This is a textbook example of yellow journalism."
However, Capitol Media Services reporter Howie Fischer's report states, "[Forestry Division spokeswoman Carrie Dennett] said Payne did admit making the comments."
That makes three forestry division explanations on the matter -- he said it, he didn't say it, and he didn't really know what he was saying.
New Times tried to get just one explanation from the forestry division this afternoon, and spokesman Jim Paxon insisted that Payne "has not admitted to anybody to making the comments" in Dougherty's report.
Paxon said he had not seen Fischer's report, in which another official says Payne did make the statements.
Paxon insisted that he "just got off the phone with [Payne], not 10 minutes ago," and he said Payne was adamant about not making the comments.
Dougherty stands behind his story and reporting.
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He also posted an explanation to InvestigativeMEDIA, detailing how he got Payne's comments:
InvestigativeMEDIA interviewed Payne on the afternoon of July 29 at the state forestry division. The meeting was requested by Payne to go over forestry division records that had been requested by InvestigativeMEDIA under the state public records law. At no time did Payne request to "go off the record" in response to questions.
During the course of the interview, Payne confirmed that Granite Mountain Hotshot superintendent Eric Marsh was acting as a division supervisor on June 30 and had the authority to make independent tactical decisions on where and when to move the Granite Mountain crew.
Payne stated that wildfire safety protocols appear to have been violated when Marsh led his team out of a safety zone where the fire had already burned and down into a chaparral-choked box canyon in an effort to reach the town of Yarnell. The men were trapped at the base of canyon by the inferno.
Forestry division officials seem to be frustrated that information was released ahead of the official investigative report, but, by all appearances, haven't made a uniform decision on how to cope with the information.