Yarnell Hill Fire Interviews Describe Widespread Confusion at the Scene

Newly released documents from the investigation released by the Arizona State Forestry Division describe widespread confusion among those at the scene of the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire.

Although the report itself has been widely discounted for investigators' refusal to assess any blame for the events that led up to the deaths of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, the documentation used to produce that report shows that everything certainly didn't go right.

See also:
-Investigating the Deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots

Among the documents released by the forestry division are "interview notes," taken during interviews of people who fought the fire. Much of this 60-page document includes generalizations, abbreviations, and fragmented sentences that can likely only be completely comprehended by the person who wrote them.

However, the investigative report released by the forestry division a couple months ago seems to downplay some aspects of what was happening on the ground, including the confusion and communication issues.

Although the report cited troubles with radio communication, just about everyone interviewed complained about it, for a variety of reasons. In just these interview notes, there are 15 references to people describing themselves or others in a state of confusion, from those on the ground, to those in the air, to those supervising the firefighting effort.

Below, read some of the excerpts describing the disorder. (Note: In interviews done with groups of people, the notes don't point out who said what.)

Blue Ridge Hotshots:

When they get back to the buggies, Travis has recloned all the radios in attempt to improve radio commo. The crew witness' a near miss with the VLAT and the helitanker. B4 B & T get back to the buggies, Travis feels that AA sounds overwhelmed, the air show seemed troublesome. The helos seemed to be free lancing dropping where they want, no one directing them on tactics. This is when the helitanker splits the east flank. The tankers and helo's aren't picking up the black and establishing good black, no solid anchor point. Hit and miss, spotty, unanchored drops of water. Tankers were going indirect, this is when True says were going defensive around 1200-1215. This is when the seasonals say, this is like the Swiss cheese effect...Trew comes back with we need a piece of cheese. This is just one big hole.
Air attack:
Q: Any communication of wind shift:
A: No. It was never communicated to me. Thunder storms/going downhill toward town.

There wasn't much we could do under the column. We shut down the fixed wing. Helo made a couple of runs. The windshield was too dirty.

Q: What was odd?
A: Confusion as to division assignment.

Structure group/rough place, nice houses/not attentive. Be in a good spot or leave. They couldn't comprehend that the fire had split and fire behavior was going down. They were on their own tactical plan. Dozier going in direct or indirect was pushing open the two track. Pilot said the dozer was stopped. Did not see it spotting, it was running like a grass fire.
Another air attack team:
Q: Do you remember what the frantic call was? No answer

The supervisor was dead calm about 5 minutes before they sheltered. By the time the tanker showed up both retardant lines were compromised. I told Tom "lets fly something further down". Did the run. I think 910 had us in sight. We were right here (pointed at map) when Granite Mountain 7 called screaming in the radio. Ops said "are you getting this? I told Granite Mountain 7 "you need to calm down. I can't understand you". Immediately Division A called and said "we are starting a burn out, we are getting in our shelters. I said we got pople in trouble. Tanker called and said I got you in sight. I claimed out - the DC10 swung wide. I looked at John and he did this (slash across the throat). I told Kevin to stand by copy, taking it around. We have a crew in trouble. We are going to go look. I put the DC10 in a holding pattern because we had 2 helos in the area (1735) low on fuel. Cleared them to the dip site to drop their bucket. It was just a sea of black and we needed the helos up. At first KA wanted to get the bucket but John said "no, we need to find these guys". KA couldn't see the rigs, there was too much smoke. "Copy, you are getting in your shelter, listen for the aircraft, we don't know where you are". After 1 minute he said again "we are going into shelters". At one point 910 thought her heard him call but there was too much noise........maybe not. I kept calling and looking..........nothing.
Ranger 58 lifted off at 1716. 30min into flight on the ridge they see yellow packs searched nth west and east from that. Pilot could feel the wind trying to suck him down especially when he got off the ridge. Intense heat, especially when they opened the door. 45min into flight quads come running up the trail. 1/4mi east of ship relayed to DPS those are bladder bags. Relayed to B33 to have DPS hover over packs...DPS was running low on fuel. Very smoky, then they saw the ranch, and started descending ½ mi from the ranch into the bowl. At 1812 they saw clusters of shelters. No movement. Chip did see some bodies outside of the shelters. 2-3 shelters weren't on at all. It was moon scaped. Pilot wanted to sit Eric down but had a hard time figuring out where. Landed 300-400yds north of the ranch. 1815 Eric jumped out of the ship. Loking back it was too soon, very hot had to stick my camel pack in my mouth in order to breathe. The ship was critically low on fuel so they needed to head back. Came back to helibase and put hot fuel in there that's when pilot heard A422 (Eric) say 19 confirmed fatalities. Cliff said 19 shelters, 19 confirmed fatalities. Cliff relayed to B3 we have 19 confirmed...fatalities B3 asked. Affirm. Eric was looking for 20-22 ppl he was told it would be the crew, dozer and a DIVS. So they walked the area very well.
Incident Commander Roy Hall:
Q: Were you surprised by the location of where Granite Mountain was found?
A: Shocked
Q: Why were you shocked?
A: When Paul Musser called and said they are descending a predetermined escape route. I assumed it had been scouted.
Q: Were you aware that it was heard several times that he was in the black.
A: We heard "can see what's going on - we are in hard black".
Q: From your perspective - radio event announced over the radio - what was your view about what was going on?
A: Valid? There were gaps there. What I left out of the briefing was the structural groups/salvage - report was not good. Structures at Moddle Creek not defendable, same with Yarnell. Peeples Valley is different due to the change in fuels. Natural trigger points for evacuation.
Operations Section Chiefs Paul Musser and Todd Abel:
Musser hears radio traffic from Eric Marsh, Granite Mountain, that said "they were going to pre-determined route to the structures". Musser was not sure who that radio traffic was sent to?

LB33 to Todd Abel:
  • LB33: Do we need to stop operations and check on guys [GM] in black
  • Todd: Yes, they're in black
  • LB-33: Confirm they are good
  • Todd: Yes

Both Abel and Musser hear very excited radio traffic that was not understandable from Granite 7 or a Granite Mountain member on air to ground radio frequency. Eric Marsh then came on the radio saying "our escape route is compromised and we are deploying shelters" on air to ground radio frequencies.

Send feedback and tips to the author.
Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley