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

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The federal Southwest Coordination Center oversees Arizona's 13 hotshot crews, which included Granite Mountain. The SWCC also dispatches eight New Mexico-based hotshot crews.

The crews can be assigned to work for up to 14 days in a row on out-of-town assignments. But after 14 days, they are required to have two days off. On extended periods of activity while based at home, the crews have a minimum of one day off every 21 days, according to the Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations.

SWCC officials refused to respond to questions about whether Granite Mountain had reached its requirement for mandatory days off by June 30. But excerpts from the Arizona Interagency Dispatch Center log suggest its members had.

Soon after the state lost control of the Yarnell Hill Fire on the evening of June 29, fire managers began looking for more help to fight the blaze. Shortly after 6 p.m., incident commander Russ Shumate contacted Charlie Havel, a dispatcher for the Arizona dispatch center, which provides logistical support to firefighting managers.

Shumate said he wanted two hotshot crews sent to Yarnell by 6 a.m. the next day. Havel told Shumate that the Yarnell Hill Fire was "sitting low" on the priority list and that he would "have to shop around" for hotshots. Shumate told Havel that he "might be able to call Prescott and shake some crews loose."

Prescott had two hotshot crews: the city's Granite Mountain unit and the Prescott Hotshots, operated by the Prescott National Forest.

A few minutes later, at 6:21 p.m., Havel filed a request with the SWCC for two hotshot crews to be sent to Yarnell.

The SWCC responded four minutes later, stating that it could send only one crew, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, another Arizona-based team. "That will be the only IHC [hotshot crew] I have for tomorrow, though," the SWCC stated.

At 8:10 p.m., Arizona dispatch contacted the SWCC again and stated: "Placing order for Granite Mountain IHC."

Three minutes later, the logs show that "ABQ" (short for Albuquerque, where the SWCC is located) responded with a terse message to Arizona dispatch: "Can't accept assignment."

The state continued to press for a second hotshot crew. At 8:49 p.m., Arizona dispatch contacted the SWCC and advised, "We have pushed orders for another Type 1 crew."

The dispatch logs show that the SWCC did not respond to this message.

Twelve minutes later, state dispatcher Havel notified state fire managers and other Arizona dispatchers assigned to the Yarnell Hill Fire that he had "e-mailed a resource order to Eric Marsh for Granite Mountain Crew C-5." Marsh was superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The next day, about 8 a.m., the Granite Mountain Hotshots reported for duty in Yarnell.

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The Granite Mountain Hotshots unit is part of a nationwide network of wildland firefighting "hand" crews and is required to meet annual certification standards set by the National Interagency Fire Center before it can be deployed to fight wildfires across the country.

Hotshot crews are considered national assets, and wildfire incident commanders believe they can assign any hotshot crew in the nation to a particular task knowing that each squad can protect firefighters' safety while accomplishing complex and dangerous missions.

"If I order up a Type 1 [hotshot crew], my expectation is that they are going to meet these standards," says Dick Mangan, a former wildland firefighter and investigator on major fire disasters, including the South Canyon Fire in Colorado, where nine hotshots and five other firefighters were killed in 1994, and on the Dude Fire near Payson, where six inmate firefighters were killed in 1990.

Like all hotshot crew members, Granite Mountain's were required to complete at least 40 hours of annual training and meet minimum experience and employment standards. Otherwise, the crew could not be cleared as a certified hotshot squad to fight wildfires each year. Among these standards is that each crew must have at least seven members in "permanent/career" positions.

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.

The crew's certification checklist classified senior firefighter Christopher ?MacKenzie as a permanent career employee. MacKenzie's Prescott personnel file, however, states that he was a "temporary and seasonal" employee. MacKenzie signed a "temporary employment acknowledgment" stating that he was not eligible for employee benefits, including health insurance, paid sick leave, paid vacation leave, and paid holidays.

Jennifer Jones, a public affairs officer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, states in an e-mail that hotshot crews are allowed to include seasonal employees among the minimum number of seven permanent/career workers. Such employees are considered "permanent, seasonal" and receive "appointments and benefits," the NIFC states in published reports, that MacKenzie did not get.

Not only did Granite Mountain not have the sufficient number of permanent/career employees, MacKenzie did not meet the minimum standards to be classified as a senior firefighter, having achieved only a Firefighter Type 2 grade, according to city records. Hotshot standards require a Type 1 grade for senior firefighter, one of the seven command positions on a hotshot crew.

The issue goes beyond a mere paperwork snafu.

Granite Mountain superintendent Marsh knew his crew didn't meet minimum standards for hotshots, and he expressed frustration to his superior, Wildland Division chief Willis, in his last annual employment review, dated May 5.

"It is challenging to run a nationally recognized program with minimum standards and requirements that I am unable to meet," Marsh wrote in the self-appraisal section of the review.

"It is frustrating when I know that I have the answers to anyone's questions about the program but can't communicate with the decision makers to engage in educational dialogue," he wrote. "I believe things are starting to change; however, I still have some big questions that need answering about staffing."

Willis acknowledged Marsh's frustration over the two lost positions in the annual review.

"[Prescott Fire] Chief [Dan] Fraijo, you, and I have done everything we can to address this issue. We have all spent a lot of time and energy trying to fill the positions," Willis stated. "It's now time to let the system work, realize we have done our best, and make the best of the situation."

Although the certification checklist was required to be signed by the crew's superintendent, Marsh did not sign the document. City personnel files show that Marsh was reassigned to light duty in mid-April for six to eight weeks and was not attached to the Granite Mountain Hotshots when the certification was signed.

During his absence, Granite Mountain captain Jesse Steed became acting superintendent. Steed signed the certification checklist on April 23 and passed it up to his superiors. Willis and Fraijo signed the certification checklist on the same day.

Willis declined in an e-mail to answer questions concerning the certification checklist, and Fraijo did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Prescott City Attorney Jon Paladini.

Such an apparent misrepresentation on the certification checklist would be a breach of ethics, according to the Standards for Interagency Hotshot Crew Operations manual.

"It is the responsibility of the superintendent and first line supervisor to objectively assess their crew to see if [members] are meeting the intent of this document," the manual states. "They are duty-bound to not misrepresent the IHC community. Leadership of the highest moral character is required during these decisions."

The checklist isn't the only problematic documentation issue.

Granite Mountain Hotshots officials also are required to prepare an extensive annual "preparedness review" designed to ensure that crew members' training, qualifications, facilities, vehicles, and inventory meet minimum standards. Granite Mountain's annual reviews are supposed to be kept at Prescott Fire Department headquarters. The department has not produced copies of the annual reviews, despite repeated verbal requests and a formal request under the Arizona Public Records Law.

If Prescott officials had disclosed that the crew did not meet minimum hotshot standards, it probably would have been reclassified as a lower-level Type 2 initial-attack hand crew. Not only would a Type 2 team have required more direct supervision in the field than a hotshot squad, such a demotion would have been a blow to the Prescott Fire Department's prestige and could have threatened the Wildland Division's continued existence.

Willis told Marsh in the May review that the city "as a whole is evaluating our performance" and the "Division's future is in our hands." The City Council, as recently as 2012, was considering eliminating the crew, according to records in Willis' personnel file.

The 14 seasonal hotshots were paid between $12 and $15 an hour, with no benefits. The low pay and lack of benefits for the rank-and-file hotshots was something Marsh complained about repeatedly — largely to no avail.

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 from reimbursements for wildfire services that the Granite Mountain Hotshots provided across the country. The city contributed $249,000 in matching funds for the grants, plus an additional $68,000 in general funds.

Prescott got reimbursed at a rate of $39 an hour per man when the hotshots were deployed on state or federal lands, according to an agreement with the state Forestry Division. The city declined to produce a copy of the current 2014 Wildland Division budget, approved in late June.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty