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

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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.

The Granite Mountain crew deployed on June 30 to the Yarnell Hill Fire included four members in their first season of fighting wildland fires and five additional members with only one previous season of firefighting experience, city records show.

Four of the seven members of Granite Mountain's command staff were in their first season in their positions. Robert Caldwell and Travis Carter were "crew boss" rookies, while Travis Turbyfill and MacKenzie were in their first year as senior firefighters.

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.

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.

The nature of this "major disruption" is unclear, as is another big dispute during the 2011 season, when Marsh and his captain — who subsequently resigned — were at odds. "It was difficult not to be angry and vengeful in the situation," Marsh wrote.

Yet another details-omitted leadership disruption occurred during the 2010 season when there was an "extraordinary situation with one of our supervisors that ended with a resignation," Marsh wrote in his employee review for that year.

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, it was led by Marsh, a superintendent who had 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.

Further complicating the situation, the Arizona Forestry Division did not assign an independent division supervisor to oversee Granite Mountain's assignment to cut trees and shrubs to create a fire line on the southwest flank of the blaze. Instead, it had Marsh do it.

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 then remain with crews.

The division supervisor is in charge of all operations in a designated geographic area and often acts as the lookout so he can make decisions based on the most current information about weather and fire conditions, former hotshots say.

"The division supervisor should have been the lookout," says former Little Tujunga Hotshot Larry Sall. "The kid who was the lookout [Brendan McDonough, 21, the sole survivor among the Granite Mountain Hotshots] should have been on the line."

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.

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The Yarnell Hill fire was ignited about 5:40 p.m. on Friday, June 28, by lightning strikes during one of the season's first monsoon thunderstorms. Along with a cascade of lightning, such early-season storms typically pack high winds and little moisture.

Arizona dispatch logs show that fire managers determined the fire was "inactive" and "not much of a threat." The state took no action to put it out the night it started.

The state ordered firefighting crews, made up of inmates from Yuma and Lewis state prisons, to be in Peeples Valley, a small community a few miles north of Yarnell, by 8 a.m. Saturday. Later that morning, aircraft were used to drop retardant around the fire to stop it from spreading while the prison crews managed its edges. By midday, the state thought the fire was out.

"They thought they had it at this point, [that] air attack [had] knocked it down," Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne said in a July interview.

State fire managers began removing firefighting equipment, including a single-engine air tanker and at least two engines, from the Yarnell Hill Fire shortly after 3 p.m. But an hour later, incident commander Russ Shumate notified a dispatcher that crews were "still having trouble catching" the fire. It now was estimated to be between two and four acres.

Problems escalated quickly.

Shortly after 5 p.m., the fire jumped a two-track jeep road acting as a firebreak on the eastern flank. An hour later, this new arm of the fire — known as a "slop-over" because it had crossed a firebreak — had grown to about two acres on the eastern side of the jeep trail. The state had 13 firefighters trying to contain the slop-over.

At this point, the weather became a major factor. Thunderstorms to the northeast, near Prescott, thwarted efforts to call in a helicopter and another heavy air tanker, as both pilots turned down missions to drop retardant on the fire, dispatch logs show.

Although a DC-10, the largest tanker in the fleet of planes used to drop retardant, was available in Albuquerque, commanders in charge of the plane refused to respond to Yarnell because of "weather and other priority fires."

The lack of substantial air support and the inability of the inmate crews to cut effective fire lines failed to contain the blaze. "The [prison] hand crew that is up there with limited [chainsaw capabilities] is ineffective," Shumate told the dispatcher.

The state Forestry Division's initial attack on what had been a relatively small fire had failed.

As night fell, the fire had grown to about 150 acres, although records show that no one was certain of its size at the time. As the fire burgeoned, the state ordered additional resources, including a "Short Type 2 incident-management team," to assume control of firefighting operations the next day. A short team is a bare-bones unit that lacks sufficient senior managers, called "overhead," to direct firefighting operations.

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.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty