Wildfire Expert Alleges Arizona Forestry Division Covering Up Yarnell Hill Tragedy

Wildfire Expert Alleges Arizona Forestry Division Covering Up Yarnell Hill Tragedy
Kyle T. Webster

A long-anticipated field presentation scheduled today by the Arizona Forestry Division for the families of 19 incinerated Granite Mountain Hotshots – during which relatives are to be taken to the site where their loved ones perished — has been sharply criticized for failing to accurately portray what happened.

During the site visit, participants are to be taken to different locations on the fire site, and wildfire experts are to provide presentations of what they say is the best-available information about the events that led up to the deaths of the Hotshots on June 30, 2013, at Yarnell Hill.

A "Facilitator Guide" book also has been prepared that provides detailed information about key events on on the day of the fire and those that preceded it.

The tour and presentation are 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 logistics officer for the Forestry Division, stated in a February 25 e-mail to families.

But one of the nation's leading wildfire fatality experts, who has participated in such events in the past, sharply criticizes the information to be presented as constituting an inaccurate and misleading portrayal of the events.

"I think the staff ride is an insult to all of [the Hotshots'] loved ones because [materials associated with it don't tell] the truth," said Ted Putnam, a retired wildfire fatality investigator and Chino Valley resident who has conducted an unofficial probe 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 to be used during the staff ride by New Times, which obtained it from the state Forestry Division through an Arizona Public Records Law request.

Putnam contended 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 that the state Forestry Division ordered the Granite Mountain Hotshots 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 this screams at me they were ordered off the top [of the mountain],” Putnam said. 

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 a leading expert in wild-land fire entrapment and has been cited as a pioneer in advancing scientific knowledge on the subject.

He 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.

Prescott memorial to the 19 Granite Mountain firefighters who perished in the Yarnell Hill fire.
Prescott memorial to the 19 Granite Mountain firefighters who perished in the Yarnell Hill fire.
Arizona Forestry Division

His Yarnell Hill claim directly contradicts the official version of events included in the Forestry Division's Serious Accident Investigation Report released in September 2013, and there is no mention of such an order in facilitator documents.

The SAI report 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 [4:04 p.m.]," the SAI report stated.

Putnam said the report's conclusion defies logic. He does not believe that Granite Mountain Hotshots Superintendent Eric Marsh would have ordered his men to leave their safe zone unless he was pressured by superiors to get the crew to the town of Yarnell. At the time the crew moved off the mountain, the fire was sweeping into Yarnell, forcing many residents to evacuate.

“Marsh's action makes no sense at all unless he was ordered off the top,” Putnam said.

He said he cannot reveal his sources because they provided the information under the promise of confidentiality. But he says he will provide complete details in a formal setting under oath.

State Forestry Director Jeff Whitney requested a meeting early Monday with New Times to respond to Putnam's statements. But Whitney walked out of the interview without saying a word when a reporter began to set up a video camera to record the session.

A few minutes later, Joy Hernbrode, the division's deputy director for administrative services, spoke to New Times.

"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 said. "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 Forestry Division that show Marsh was communicating about the crew's movements during a 30-minute period, when the SAI report 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. This also occurred during the period when the SAI report said there was no verifiable communication by the crew.

While it is difficult to clearly hear the unknown firefighter, it sounds like he was saying “Copy … coming down and appreciate if 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 replied, “Ah, they’re coming from the heel of the fire.”

Marsh’s widow, Amanda, confirmed it was her late husband’s voice.

Hernbrode said the video does not prove anybody ordered the crew to leave the mountain.

"I don't know who [Marsh is] talking to," she said. "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 communication between Marsh and other unknown firefighters during the reported blackout period also surfaced in background audio of an aerial firefighting effectiveness study that was conducted during the Yarnell Hill Fire.

These audio clips were included in the supplemental materials released with the SAI report but were not included in the formal report.

Wildfire expert Ted PutmanEXPAND
Wildfire expert Ted Putman
John Dougherty

Today's staff ride is required under a June 2015 settlement agreement with 12 Hotshot families that filed a $220 million federal lawsuit against the Forestry Division. The agreement requires the state to pay the  families a total of $600,000 while admitting no wrongdoing.

Among the records released by the division is the "Yarnell Hill Staff Ride Facilitator Guide, " prepared for a trial staff ride on February 17-18, and the guide for today's site visit by the Granite Mountain families.

OMNA International, a private contractor that specializes in preparing staff rides for wildfire-fatality sites, as well as for 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 SAI report has been roundly criticized for its conclusion that nobody did anything wrong, despite 19 “elite” firefighters' getting killed in a box canyon full of explosive desert scrub during rapidly changing weather conditions.

The guides provide no information concerning the events that led to Granite Mountain’s entrapment that was not presented in the much-criticized SAI report.

Putnam said the SAI report – without directly saying so – essentially blames Granite Mountain Hotshot leaders Marsh and Steed for making unilateral decisions that led crew  members to their deaths.

"They are saying virtually all the mistakes were made by Eric and Jesse and that the crew pretty much did this to themselves,” Putnam said.

There’s no question, Putnam said, that Marsh and Steed made a terrible decision to move the crew into the box canyon and that both men should have refused to follow any Forestry orders or directives requesting the move.

But, Putnam said, the decision to move was not made a vacuum, that the Forestry Division "screwed up just as bad as Eric and Steed did.”

The guides also do not include 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 blaze, which began on the evening of June 28, 2013. The citations later were dismissed in conjunction with the settlement agreement with the families.

The guide that will be presented to the families today does mention that a number of basic wild-land firefighting rules were violated by the Granite Mountain crew in the moments leading up to its entrapment, including the crew's 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 February 17-18 trial staff ride, later wrote the division urging it to include a section where attendees review basic wild-land firefighter rules of engagement.

These include the “Ten Standard Orders and 18 Watchout Situations,” as well as four key principles explained in a document called the LCES (“Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones”).

“Perhaps there would be value in adding a page in the [facilitator guide] that allows participants to review the 10 and 18 and [the] LCES, a back to basics perspective which is what the crew was operating from,” Zombro stated in a February 22 e-mail to Forestry. “Challenge the attendees to find weak points once the course is completed.”

While Zombro's suggestion was ignored, the division and OMNA International incorporated some  suggestions made by Mark Kaib, southwest deputy regional fire-management coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, for the presentation to the families.

Kaib, in a detailed report of the February staff ride, questioned that 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 stated.

Kaib also questioned whether Granite Mountain leadership allowed the threat to the Yarnell community, 45 miles from Prescott, to “blind their fire behavior situational awareness and risk-assessment process?

Wild-land firefighters, armed with picks and shovels,. should not be focused on protecting structures, many experts believe.

“[Granite Mountain leaders] 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 facilitator guide to be presented to the families today includes several factual errors, leaves out a key event in the timeline, and misquotes a crucial conversation, among other shortcomings, including  changing the times of critical 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 Lewis state prison. The six prisoners ran out of chainsaw fuel shortly before the fire jumped a two-track road on the afternoon of June 29 and began to rapidly expand. There’s no mention of this in the guide.

In the description of Granite Mountain’s workload in the days leading up to the fire, the guide states that the crew worked on a wildfire June 28, but ignores that it was assigned to a fire near Prescott on June 29 and reportedly worked 16 hours, according to billing records.

Nor is there mention that Sunday, June 30, was the crew’s scheduled day off and that its members 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 moved toward 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 Granite Mountain Hotshots Captain Steed —  who had just received a radio call from Marsh, who earlier that day had been reassigned as a division supervisor —  and discuss what the conversation means.

The February guide states that Marsh asks Steed: “[W]hat 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 said.

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, at an unknown location but apparently in a place where he could not see the blaze, 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 group's radio frequency whether to move the men — with Marsh eventually ordering Steed, a former Marine, to do just that.

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, by the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner.

The camera, however, did not go directly from the medical examiner’s office to the Serious Accident Investigation Team. Instead, it was sent to MacKenzie’s father, who later discovered it still was 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.

View looking east into the box canyon where the hotshots were trapped and burned to death.
View looking east into the box canyon where the hotshots were trapped and burned to death.
Arizona Forestry Division

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, “We’ll never know” why the crew moved off the mountain, continuing that he believed 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.” 

The family guide 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 the death of brave Marines who followed orders from 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 wrote.

Marsh sought in his letter to define the hotshots 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.”


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