News

Yarnell Hill Fire: The Granite Mountain Hotshots Never Should've Been Deployed, Mounting Evidence Shows

Page 3 of 6

Increasing evidence reveals that reasons far from supernatural contributed to the tragic deaths of 19 of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Dispatch logs show that the Granite Mountain crew should not have been deployed to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire. The federal Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque — in charge of dispatching hotshot crews based in Arizona and New Mexico — refused Arizona's repeated requests to send the unit to Yarnell.

Granite Mountain already had been on grueling assignments in New Mexico and, upon returning to Prescott in mid-June, immediately was sent out to fight the Doce Fire that was ignited in the Granite Mountain Wilderness on June 18.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots may have reached the maximum consecutive days for work before mandatory time off was required, although officials at the SWCC have declined to confirm or deny that or otherwise comment on why they turned down Arizona's requests.

Despite the refusal by the SWCC, records show, the state contacted Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh directly via e-mail on the evening of June 29 and requested that the crew proceed to Yarnell the next morning. The state Forestry Division declined to comment when asked whether it circumvented the SWCC by sending the dispatch order directly to Marsh.

Prescott Fire Department officials, including Wildland Division chief Willis, also wouldn't comment on this point.

Before the Granite Mountain Hotshots even approached Yarnell Hill, a substantial amount of information shows, serious problems already had engulfed the crew. The personnel-related matters call into question whether the crew met minimum hotshot qualifications.

The systemic crisis gripping an overworked crew — along with its baffling decision to leave a safe zone and move down a canyon through a treacherous, 10-foot-high thicket of unburned fuel toward a rapidly approaching wildfire — has raised fundamental questions about whether the nation's only hotshot crew attached to a municipal fire department was a blueprint for disaster.

There's a profound difference between fighting wildfires with chainsaws and shovels and riding firetrucks to rescue burning buildings, then blasting water on flames.

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.

"The fire does what it wants to do," explains Rod Wrench, a former member of the Del Rosa Hotshots and superintendent of the Little Tujunga Hotshots, both from California. "Until the weather changes or the fuel changes or the terrain changes, there isn't much you can do."

The Prescott Fire Department has attempted to blend wildfire fighting and structural protection, two radically different concepts, inside one agency. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the city already is discussing reforming the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew for next season — an idea some former hotshots find appalling.

"The absolute worst outcome from this horrible event is for the city of Prescott to get another crew," expert Gary Olson says at his Flagstaff home.

"You just killed everyone on the last one," he says of the Prescott Fire Department. "That has never happened in the history of wildland firefighting. And now you want to get another one?"

As Prescott struggles to recover from a disaster that has shaken the city to its core — as a makeshift memorial surrounding the Granite Mountain Hotshots headquarters in a refurbished garage attests — any criticism of the actions of the firefighters is more than most residents can bear. The hotshots have been widely hailed as heroes and even were declared the "Saints of Prescott" at a July 9 memorial service attended by many dignitaries, including Vice President Joe Biden.

These were young men: Three of the dead were 21, five were under 25, six were under 30, four were between 30 and 36, and their leader was 43. They leave behind wives, fiancées, children, and babies yet to be born. They were killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.

But as each day passes, evidence mounts that serious mistakes were made by the Prescott Fire Department, the state Forestry Division, and Granite Mountain's superintendent.

The Arizona Forestry Division's decision to let the fire burn the night it started on state land and then dispatch prison crews the next day rather than apply overwhelming force to put it out — combined with a lack of sufficient aircraft to apply desperately needed retardant — turned a manageable event into a catastrophe.

Arizona is "always looking to save money by going cheap," says Olson, who also worked for four years as a dispatcher in the Santa Fe National Forest, managing resources to fight wildfires. "Sometimes the fire gets away from you and becomes a big monster, putting firefighters at risk."

Based on the latest federal estimate, the Yarnell Hill "monster" cost $5.45 million to put down.

***

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.
John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty