Yarnell Hill Fire: Prescott's Wildlands Fire Commander Responds to New Times' Cover Story on Granite Mountain Hotshots
Photo illustration by New Times
Editor's note: New Times is taking the extraordinary measure of publishing a series of complaints by Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis about our coverage of the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. We're doing this because Willis' letter is itself newsworthy, and his statements as a public official and the only surviving member of Prescott's wildlands command staff are of great interest to the public and to our readers. In what follows, we respond to the chief's concerns. New Times and Willis don't agree on many of the points he raises, but the discourse is important and in line with our commitment to dig deeply and report fearlessly about controversial issues in Arizona.
After refusing to answer written questions or to be interviewed before publication of our August 22 cover story, "Lambs to Slaughter," about the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain firefighters, Prescott hotshots boss Darrell Willis sent New Times a letter containing what he claims are 22 inaccuracies in the article.
A pyrocumulonimbus cloud rises over the town of Yarnell at 4:47 p.m. on June 30 at the exact moment when the Granite Mountain Hotshots sent a radio message that the crew's 19 men were deploying emergency fire shelters.
Courtesy of AZSF
Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis at a death-scene press conference July 23.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, and City Attorney Jon Paladini didn't respond to our communications seeking comment before publication, nor did the state Forestry Division respond to questions concerning its assignment of the hotshots, operated by Prescott, to the Yarnell Hill Fire.
After publication, Willis and the state identified three factual errors in New Times' interpretation of public records.
The errors don't change fundamental premises of the story: The Granite Mountain Hotshots failed to meet minimum hotshot standards, federal officials initially refused to dispatch the crew to Yarnell, the state failed to contain what was at first a small fire through its slow and ineffective response, and former hotshot superintendents and a former wildfire accident investigator raised serious concerns over the crew's apparent priority of placing structure protection ahead of its own safety.
Consequently, New Times stands by the author's reporting in this article, which was based upon public records available at the time of publication. We decline Chief Willis' request to retract conclusions and opinions drawn in "Lambs to Slaughter."
New Times corrected two errors in our August 29 edition, which are attached to the cover story online. The article stated that Willis, whom the crew worked directly under, had no wildland firefighting experience as a member of a hotshot crew, when he does. And the article mistakenly says ALB was the designation of the federal Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which dispatches firefighting crews in Arizona and New Mexico. Willis states in his letter that ALB is the initials of a person who worked at the SWCC. The state Forestry Division, however, recently said ALB is the initials of a person not affiliated with the SWCC. ABQ is the correct designation for Albuquerque.
The SWCC comes up prominently in the story because the federal office told the state Forestry Division that it had only the Blue Ridge Hotshots available for the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, in response to the state's request for two hotshot crews (see highlight section on pages seven, eight, and nine). Though the SWCC has declined to comment since the tragedy, the center's initial refusal to authorize sending the Granite Mountain Hotshots appears based on the amount of time the crew had spent working that month. Sunday, June 30, was the crew's scheduled day off and was its 28th work day that month. The state e-mailed the "resource order" directly to Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh ordering the crew to report to Yarnell.
According to Prescott records obtained September 3, New Times made a third error. The cover story says Marsh was in the field with his crew at Yarnell for the first time this fire season since he was placed on light duty April 18. But the recently released records show that Marsh worked on the Doce Fire from June 18 to 25, the West Spruce Fire on June 28, and the Mt. Josh Fire on June 29.
A memorial for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Marsh has been at the center of controversy surrounding the tragedy since Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne said in a widely publicized July interview that Marsh erred in taking his crew out of a safe, charred area into a canyon of dense and highly volatile chaparral. The men no longer could see the wall of flames headed their way, and the blaze engulfed them.
Indeed, speculation has abounded about why the crew headed out of "the black" and into the dangerous canyon as a powerful thunderstorm unleashing 40-mile-per-hour winds approached.
It was Chief Willis who ignited the debate when he held a July 23 press conference at the site where crew members deployed their fire shelters in a desperate effort to survive the inferno. The press conference was unusual because, before it, authorities had refused to answer questions about the circumstances leading up to the hotshots' deaths because the incident was under investigation. Deputy State Forester Payne made his comments several days later.
Willis, however, told state and national media that he believed the hotshots were bushwhacking through the 10-foot-high brush toward a ranch in an effort to save its buildings. Ironically, it turned out that the ranch owners had built a firebreak around their homestead and outbuildings and didn't need the hotshots' assistance.
Former hotshot superintendents said the crew's inexplicable decision to leave a safe area and descend into a chaparral-choked canyon as the fire approached -- along with Willis' speculation that the crew wanted to protect the ranch -- leads to a troubling conclusion.
"There is absolutely no other explanation that I can up with -- no matter how much I think about it -- except that their priority mission was to protect structures," Gary Olson, a former superintendent of Arizona's Happy Jack Hotshots, founder of the Santa Fe Hotshots, and later a U.S. Bureau of Land Management criminal investigator, said in our story. "That may be what structural firefighters do, but there should be no way in hell that is what a wildland firefighter does, especially when they are on foot and carrying hand tools."
In his letter to New Times, Willis argues that sources quoted in our story, including Olson -- who retired in 2006 after 30 years as a wildlands firefighter and Bureau of Land Management criminal investigator -- aren't true experts "because they've been out of the business for a long time" and that structure protection is a mainstay of hotshot crews:
"Chief Willis has witnessed and also directed numerous federal hotshot crews being deployed to protect structures. Consideration of structures as one of many factors is common and not unique to Prescott."
Willis started at the Prescott Fire Department -- which, like all municipal fire departments, focuses on structure protection -- in 1985 and retired as fire chief in 2007. He eventually was rehired in 2007 as Emergency Services director and became Wildland Division chief in 2010. In his letter, he cites his hotshots experience as an 18-day deployment in 2011 with the Granite Mountain crew and three different assignments in 2010. He says he's certified as a "Firefighter Type 1" and "Operations Section Chief Type II." In 2005, Willis was inducted into the Arizona Fire Service Hall of Fame.
Continuing on the issue of structure protection in his letter to us, Willis writes, "The mission of the Granite Mountain IHC is: 'We are committed to provide a comprehensive wildland and all-hazard program that prevents the loss of life and property for all people of our community.'"
Willis appears to miss Olson's point, which is that the lives of hotshot crews crews shouldn't be imperiled to save structures, not that hotshots never should consider protecting structures.
What follows are Willis' statements at the July 23 press conference at the site of the hotshots' deaths -- why conclusions started getting drawn that Marsh and his crew must have risked their lives in an attempt to save the ranch.
A line of hearses carrying the bodies of the Granite Mountain Hotshots travels through Peeples Valley.
"I believe they felt they weren't doing good where they were at," Willis said at the time to reporters and TV crews. "They had to abandon their tactic of trying to anchor and flank the fire and go into what we call 'point protection,' and that's to move fire around the houses and to protect structures. I believe that was what their intent was."
He went on, "You know, it's all speculation at this point and time. But in my heart, I would know they are not protecting themselves ... they are going to protect that ranch."
Commenting further about what the crew's motivation to head through the canyon might have been, Willis said, "I have thought about that a lot. It is ingrained in firefighters' minds. Why do firefighters run into burning buildings when it's just property?"
Structural firefighters at city fire departments do enter burning buildings, but they are aided by fire trucks, water pumps, and fire hoses, unlike hotshot crews that use shovels, picks, and chainsaws to fight wild fires.
Summing up the tragedy at the death site, Willis said, "It was just one of those things that happened. You can call it an accident. I just say that God had a different plan for that crew at this time."
Despite the statements in his letter and at the press conference, plus that he was overseeing structure protection at the Yarnell Hill fire at the time his crew perished, Willis takes offense in his letter that our article suggested that he and the Prescott Fire Department could have stressed structure protection -- even if crew safety is at risk -- to the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
"This inaccurate and unfounded claim places undue and unproven blame for the deaths of 19 men on Chief Willis," his letter states. "It is defamatory, libelous, and harmful. Chief Willis never taught or communicated any philosophy other than his expectations for the crew that he communicates annually in [its] 80-hour critical training."
For the record, New Times neither asserted, implied, nor intended to imply that Willis was responsible for the deaths of these men.
Evidence that structure protection was on the mind of at least one Granite Mountain hotshot as the crew headed to the Yarnell Hill Fire comes up in a eulogy for the crew at a July 9 memorial service by Dan Bates, president of the United Yavapai Fire Association:
"Just before the final hike in to start battling the fire, one of the firefighters was texting his mother. The mother was concerned over the long month the men had spent fighting fire [in other places] and the 100-plus-degree temperature in Yarnell. She wanted them to rest. The son replied, "Mom, the fire is getting big. There's a ranch down there. We need to go protect it. We will rest later."
Yet Willis insists in his letter, "[T]hese firefighters were not trained or experienced to be [as the story said] 'thinking like a structural firefighter.'"
In the only instance of Willis' answering a New Times question before publication of the August 22 story, Prescott's manager of the Granite Mountain Hotshots says in an e-mail to the story's author, investigative reporter John Dougherty, that he wasn't in contact with the leaders of his crew, Eric Marsh or Granite Mountain captain Jesse Steed, on the day they died in the fire -- saying he'd been assigned by the state to oversee structural protection in Peeples Valley.
"I had no command or control over Eric or Jesse [on June 30]," Willis wrote.
Concerning Marsh, Willis challenges a statement in the story that the longtime crew superintendent was the leader of the unit when it went out of the black into the deadly situation. Willis contends there is "no evidence" that Marsh was the hotshots' leader moments before the fatal deployment. Willis didn't make such a distinction during the July 23 press conference when he described the crew's final moments.
On the day of the fire, the state Forestry Division had appointed Marsh a "division supervisor" overseeing all fire crews in a geographic area on the southwest flank of the blaze, according to records available before publication of our story. The Granite Mountain crew was working in that area.
But Willis insists in his letter, "There was another level of supervision, a fully qualified Operations Section Chief" on hand that day, without stating whether this person had any contact with Marsh or the Granite Mountain crew before the hotshots moved out of their safety zone and into the canyon.
After Marsh's appointment as division supervisor, Granite Mountain captain Steed assumed direct command of the hotshot crew. Steed, however, continued to report to division supervisor Marsh. Photographs taken earlier in the day by two hikers show Marsh separated from the crew by as much as a half-mile and appearing to be acting as a lookout as late as 2 p.m., the hikers said in response to e-mailed questions.
In his letter, Willis says Marsh wasn't with the hotshots as late as 4:04 p.m. that day. But 43 minutes later, Marsh definitely was with the crew when he sent a radio message that he and his men were unfurling emergency fire shelters as the firestorm overwhelmed their position.
A Granite Mountain tee-shirt placed over a cactus at the death site.
Willis took issue with several otherNew Times' assertions in the story, including:
* That Granite Mountain didn't meet national Interagency Hotshot Crew minimum standards, which require the 20-member crews to have at least seven career employees.
But Prescott personnel records show that the Granite Mountain crew had six full-time employees who received benefits -- and that Marsh stated in his last performance review in May that the crew didn't meet the minimum hotshot-certification standards.
"It is challenging to run a nationally recognized program with standards and requirements that I am unable to meet," Marsh wrote.
Records show that Prescott submitted certification forms to federal officials in April stating that Granite Mountain met minimum standards.
In them, Prescott included hotshot Chris MacKenzie as a "senior firefighter" in the crew's command staff -- for which a Firefighter Type 1 certification is required -- when MacKenzie only had a Firefighter Type 2 credential. Willis says in his letter MacKenzie had completed "crewmember task books" for FFT1 by June 30, but the chief provides no indication, much less proof, that MacKenzie actually received the higher certification.
After receiving Willis' August 26 letter, this was among many points that we asked the chief to clarify, but he didn't get back to us by publication time for this story.
The nation's approximately 110 hotshot crews are required to submit annual certification forms to federal officials each year. If Prescott had submitted a certification form that showed its crew failed to meet minimum standards, Granite Mountain could've been downgraded to a Type 2 wildfire response team -- which would've required increased supervision in the field.
* That Prescott ran the crew on a "shoestring budget."
The chief, however, ignores that the city cut two full-time positions from the crew in June 2012, leaving Granite Mountain below the required seven career positions with benefits. Willis also ignores that 14 seasonal members of the young crew were paid between $12 and $15 an hour, with no benefits, for their dangerous work.
* That the crew was was afflicted by "chronic internal disputes."
But while Willis says only two members of its command staff resigned over two seasons, city records show that just two of seven leaders of the 2013 crew also were members of the 2010 crew and that just four of seven leaders of the 2011 crew were still on the 2013 crew.
Also, our story lists two internal disputes: An "extraordinary situation" in 2010 that led to a supervisor's resignation, and the 2011 resignation of the crew's captain that left Marsh stating it was "difficult not to be angry or vengeful in the situation." The story stated that another "major disruption" occurred in April 2013 just days before the seasonal firefighters began, the nature of which was unclear.
Willis states in his letter that the 2013 upheaval was related to Marsh's non-work-related injury that forced crew captain Steed to take over as acting superintendent. A former hotshot who had transferred to the structural side of the Prescott Fire Department filled in as the crew's captain until Marsh returned to duty June 18.
* That June 30, the day the firefighters burned to death, "appears to have been a federally required day off."
But records obtained after the story was published show that June 30 was the crew's 28th workday in June and was the first of its two regularly scheduled off days -- which may explain the federal dispatch center's reluctance to authorize sending in Granite Mountain.
Florida State Forester Jim Karels is leading a nine-member interagency team investigating the Yarnell Hill Fire. The report will be turned over to the Forestry Division, which sent Granite Mountain on its deadly mission. A second inquiry by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health also is under way. The interagency report is expected to be completed by the end of September.
In repeatedly refusing to answer New Times' questions or to submit to an interview, Willis more than once invoked his religious beliefs.
"I don't want to dishonor my Lord Jesus Christ in any way," Willis stated in an e-mail as one reason he wouldn't respond to 14 specific questions e-mailed to him by Dougherty on August 9. He closed by saying,"My wife and I want you to know that we prayed for God to bless you."
In his post-publication letter to New Times, Willis complained about the story's headline "Lambs to Slaughter" in our print edition. Willis said it was "disrespectful on so many levels, especially to the religious beliefs of many of the firefighters and their families."
A verbatim list of the 22 complaints in his letter (denominated by his labels of "Inaccurate Claim" -- "Fact") follows:
1. Inaccurate Claim: "He [Willis] had no experience as a hotshot and was not a member of the Granite Mountain crew he oversaw."
Fact: Chief Willis indeed has experience on hotshot crews in multiple fires. In 2011, Willis detailed in as a Firefighter Type 1 (FFT1) 18 day assignment to the Superior National Forest to the Pagami Creek fire in Minnesota with the Granite Mountain IHC. In 2010, Willis detailed in as a FFT1 on 3 different assignments to Colorado, Alabama, and California with Granite Mountain IHC. Chief Willis holds a National Wildfire Coordinating Group wildfire credential (red card) as an Operations Section Chief Type II. He routinely plans, oversees, and directs all operational assets on large wildfires including all aircraft, engines and crews in that capacity. He has been selected to serve as a Federal Incident Management Team member since 2002. Chief Willis received the Fire Line Officer Leadership Award in 2002 from the United States Forest Service, the only non forest service employee to receive this award. Additionally, in 2004 Governor Janet Napolitano gave Chief Willis a special recognition award for the Fire Line Officer Leadership award for earning the respect of national and local leaders in the fire community. Chief Willis was inducted into the Arizona Fire Service Hall of Fame in 2005 by nomination and a vote of his peers.
2. Inaccurate Claim: "It was led by Marsh, a superintendent who had not been in the field all season."
Fact: Marsh worked "in the field" on multiple fires in 2013, including the Perkinsville, Doce, West Spruce, and Mount Josh wildfires prior to the Yarnell Hill Fire. Marsh was released from light duty on June 18.
3. Inaccurate Claim: "Three minutes later, the logs show that "ALB [short for Albuquerque, where SWCC is located] responded . . ."
Fact: ALB is a person assigned to the Southwest Coordination Center (SWCC), not the acronym for Albuquerque. ABQ is the acronym for Albuquerque.
4. Inaccurate Claim: "As the problem-riddled Granite Mountain crew marched up Yarnell Hill on the morning of June 30, on what appears to have been a federally required day off . . ."
Fact: Federal guidelines suggest two days off after working 14 days on fire assignments. 6/30/13 was day 13, and therefore not "a federally required day off" by any count. See Document #1 June 2013 Timeline for Granite Mountain. Federal guidelines suggest 2 days off after working 14 days on fire assignments or 2 days off after 21 days on fire assignments including travel. These are federal rules and do not apply to state or local, although they abide by them. See Document #2 Work/Rest Guidelines. 5. Inaccurate Claim: "Prescott got reimbursed at a rate of $39 an hour per man when the hotshots were deployed on state of federal lands. Fact: Prescott got reimbursed at a rate of $39.50 per hour per man per their cooperative agreement.
6. Inaccurate Claim: "Hardly the "elite" crew the mainstream media has described time and again, the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their leadership -- except for Marsh and Steed -- were relatively green. Part of the reason was Prescott's shoestring budget for the unit."
Fact: Granite Mountain IHC complied fully to the same standards as all other Hotshot crews, the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations, Appendix A. In Hotshot firefighting the term elite refers to any and all Hotshot crews who are at this highest level training, experience, skills and equipment in their profession. Like many other points in the article, this industry jargon could have been explained to Dougherty, if he had interviewed actual experts.
7. Inaccurate Claim: "The City cut the two full-time positions even though most of the Wildland Division's $1.35 million budget in 2013 came from grants and reimbursements for wildfire services provided across the country."
Fact: 2013 Wildland Division budget was $1,281,519. In addition, the Wildland Division grant budget was $748,722 for a total division budget of $2,030,241. Please check with any federal crew and see that their annual budget for a crew is less than $700,000. Granite Mountain Hotshots and the Wildland Divison had an annual budget of $2,020,241. Not a "shoestring budget," as Dougherty claimed.
8. Inaccurate Claim: "Turnover, promotions to Prescott's higher-paying traditional structural firefighting division, and chronic internal disputes -- which led to resignations among crew leaders -- had taken a toll on the squad before the start of the 2013 season."
Fact: Over two seasons' only two squad bosses resigned, neither over "chronic internal disputes." One left to take a lower-paying job as a structural firefighter and one left to take a job locally to further his college education.
9. Inaccurate Claim: "Although the certification checklist was required to be signed by the crew's superintendent, Marsh did not sign the document."
Fact: Marsh was not the superintendent at this time. Jesse Steed signed Appendix C as an acting Superintendent. Steed was assigned as Superintendent during Marsh's absence and was fully qualified. Eric Marsh had sustained an off duty injury the weekend before the critical 80-hour training started and was placed on light duty. Tom Cooley was detailed into the Captains slot, Tom Cooley is fully qualified. Steed, Cooley, and Marsh all attended and taught classes during the 80 hour training. Marsh was released from light duty on June 18, 2013, and returned to the crew.
10. Inaccurate Claim: "But as each day passes, evidence mounts that serious mistakes were made by the Prescott Fire Department, the state Forestry Division, and Granite Mountain superintendent." Fact: The Serious Accident Investigation Team and Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health have not completed their reports, and so no such evidence to argue either way has been released yet. There simply is not yet any "evidence" from experts on which to base allegations.
11. Inaccurate Claim: "Hotshots clear fire breaks with chainsaws, shovel dirt to put out fires, and often start fires to burn out fuel-fighting fire with fire. Their primary focus is bringing wildfires under control, not providing protection for homes and structures" and "the Prescott Fire Department has attempted to blend wildland firefighting and structural protection, two radically different concepts inside one agency . . ."
Fact: The reporter here demonstrates a severe ignorance of the subject matter. Chief Willis has witnessed and also directed numerous federal hotshot crews being deployed to protect structures. Consideration of structures as one of many factors is common and not unique to Prescott.
Additionally, Granite Mountain IHC could not have been unduly focused on structure protection, as Dougherty repeatedly states, as only two of the Granite Mountain IHC members were qualified to become entry level structural firefighters with the Prescott Fire Department. Ninety percent of the Granite Mountain IHC were not qualified as structural firefighters.
The "experts" interviewed by Dougherty have been out of the business for a long time and can hardly be considered experts. If wildland firefighters do not protect structures why does the (8/21/13) National Situation Report show a National Preparedness Level of 5, the highest level of preparedness since 2008, 50 large fires with 32 of the fires reporting numerous structures threatened and 33 national Incident management Teams deployed along with 80% of all the crews in the nation deployed?
Additionally, just on the Beaver Creek fire threatening Sun Valley and Ketchum Idaho, there are 1,700 firefighters assigned to the fire with 30 crews with the primary mission to protect those communities?
The mission of the Granite Mountain IHC is: "We are committed to provide a comprehensive wildland and all-hazard program that prevents the loss of life and property for all people of our community. We accomplish this through public education, wildland code enforcement, vegetation management, training, and prompt response to wildland or all-hazard incidents.
The Wildland Division of the Prescott Fire Department is a Division and their mission is to do just that, they are not cross trained as structural firefighters but the wildland firefighters can on their own get the required training to test for a structural firefighter job after they meet the minimum qualifications and training. Some wildland firefighters have taken this path and they turn out to be great cross-trained structural firefighters. Prescott Fire Department has never had a structural firefighter go over to the Wildland Division. The Granite Mountain IHC has responded to wildland fires, winter storms, and floods, never to structural fires.
12. Inaccurate Claim: "That was a direct causal factor in their deaths because there wasn't another level of supervision outside of the thinking like a structural firefighter, Olsen says."
Fact: There was another level of supervision, a fully qualified Operations Section Chief. Additionally, as mentioned in the previous "Fact," these firefighters were not trained or experienced to be "thinking like a structural firefighter," a fact which could have been easily verified.
13. Inaccurate Claim: "So it is not surprising that Willis' structures first philosophy would be fully embraced by the crew."
Fact: This inaccurate and unfounded claim places undue and unproven blame for the deaths of 19 men on Chief Willis. It is defamatory, libelous and harmful. Chief Willis never taught or communicated any philosophy other than his expectations for the crew that he communicates annually in their annual 80-hour critical training.
14. Inaccurate Claim: "Granite Mountain failed to meet this standard because the Prescott City council voted to eliminate two full-time positions in 2012. This left the Granite Mountain Hotshots with six permanent/career employees. Nevertheless, the Prescott Fire Department submitted a certification "checklist to the interagency command center in Albuquerque in April Stating that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had the requisite seven permanent/career employees.
"Not only did Granite Mountain not have sufficient number of permanent/career employees, MacKenzie did not meet the minimum standards to be classified as a senior firefighter, having only achieved a Firefighter Type 2 grade, according to city records. Hotshot standards require a Type one grade for senior firefighter, one of the seven Command positions on a hotshot crew." Fact: Regarding the first paragraph above: The Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crews Operations Guideline (2/14/2011) states: "Non-federal IHC's will meet the retention and qualification intent of this standard using equivalent employment authority within their sponsor agency human resource policy and the sponsor Geographic Area Coordinating Group."
Chief Willis had approval on 3/21/2012 from the City Manager to hire two full-time Temporary employees. Full-time temporary employees are workers who work year round for a wage and understand they do not receive benefits (Sponsor agency human resource policy). Chris MacKenzie and Andrew Ashcraft were employed in that capacity. This actually brings the full time or career number up to eight full-time employees who work for 26 pay periods annually (2,080 regular time hours). Additionally, federal crews have three employees who work for 26 pay periods per year and 4 employees who work for 13 pay periods per year (1,040 regular time hours). The Granite Mountain IHC 8 full-time employees work 16,640 hours of regular hours per year while the federal crews work 10,400 regular hours per year.
Regarding the second paragraph above: On June 30, 2013 Chris MacKenzie did meet and exceed the minimum standard by having a FFT1 and Granite Mountain IHC crewmember task books completed. See Document #3 Christopher MacKenzie FF1 Taskbook.
The Granite Mountain IHC crewmember task book is above and beyond what is required for a lead firefighter. In addition, Granite Mountain IHC had four other crewmembers who exceeded the requirement for FFT1. Ashcraft, Rose, Norris and DeFord all were all FFT1.
15. Inaccurate Claim: "Though it is not unusual for hotshot superintendents to be assigned as division supervisors, former hotshot crew bosses say, it is unusual for them to 'remain with crews.'"
Fact: Please read the Prescott Daily Courier article dated July 25, and an account by two civilians that verify that Marsh was not with the crew and was ahead of them away from the crew.
16. Inaccurate Claim: "Marsh, however, led the crew out of a burned-over safe zone and down into a canyon packed with unburned chaparral, losing direct visual contact with a fire that was intensifying and rapidly moving in the crew's direction."
Fact: There is no evidence that Marsh led the crew at this time. There is evidence caught on video/audio that Marsh was not with the crew at 16:04 hours.
17. Inaccurate Claim: "It was this team that would tap not only Granite Mountain leader Eric Marsh to act as a division supervisor but also his boss, Darrell Willis to serve as a division supervisor overseeing structural protection in Peeples Valley."
Fact: Chief Willis was not "tapped" by this team. Chief Willis was dispatched on Saturday night at approximately 22:30 hours to assist the Type 3 Incident Commander at the Double Bar A Ranch and Model Creek subdivision as a Structure Group Supervisor and arrived hours before the team took command of the fire.
18. Inaccurate Claim: "'He made a seriously flawed decision,' Olsen says. 'But he did what he was trained to do (save structures).'"
Fact: Eric Marsh was a fully qualified Division Supervisor by National Wildfire Coordinating Group standards and qualifications with 23 years wildland firefighting experience. Eric never was a structural firefighter for the Prescott Fire Department and possessed just the minimal qualifications to test for an entry-level structural firefighting job. Eric repeatedly stated he did not want to go the route of structural firefighter and was a wildland firefighter through and through.
19. Inaccurate Claim: "When the state relinquished control of the situation by making Marsh division supervisor, he had the authority to move his crew wherever he believed was necessary, without seeking permission from superiors."
Fact: The state never relinquished control of the situation, Marsh had a direct supervisor and Operations Section Chief, Marsh had a direct supervisor that was in charge of him and his operation.
20. Inaccurate Claim: "If Marsh had been required to contact a state division supervisor -- one not influenced by the structural-protection philosophy espoused by Willis -- he surely would have been ordered to remain in the already-burned terrain or to move south along the jeep road that provided clear access to a main highway, Olsen surmises."
Fact: Marsh had a direct supervisor that was not Willis, a fully qualified Operations Section Chief. The Jeep road that is discussed was totally burned over also. Field verification is required to see this.
21. Inaccurate Claim: "Not only had Marsh been reassigned to light duty for a reported "non-work-related injury," "a major disruption in staffing" occurred "just a few days prior to the seasonal firefighters starting," Willis stated in Marsh's personnel file."
Fact: The "disruption in staffing" was simply a result of Marsh's "non-work-related injury." Dougherty's imagination has created a simple report to be "chronic personnel problems."
Chief Willis' comments from Marsh's annual Performance evaluation: "The crew is intact with a major disruption in staffing just a few days prior to the seasonal firefighters starting. This issue shows the resilience of you and the Division to meet the challenge."
This statement refers to Marsh's injury and the staffing having to be adjusted just prior to the start of the season. Due the succession planning that had taken place, this disruption was successfully abated and the crew was able to maintain its Type 1 status. Dougherty should check and compare the Granite Mountain IHC staffing and turnover with the federal crews.
22. Inaccurate Claim: "Willis' controversial explanation of what led his crew into a dense thicket, as a powerful thunderstorm blasting winds of more than 40 miles per hour rapidly approached, has triggered intense debate in the hotshot world, despite his trying to block such inquiry."
Fact: Chief Willis has not blocked any professional inquiry. He fully cooperated in interviews by the Serious Accident Investigation Team (SAIT) and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation team. He has met with the SAIT numerous times within a week of 6/30/13, providing them with information and documentation that was requested as well as providing documentation beyond the requested documentation.
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