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

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Authorities typically try to keep a tight lid on information related to fatalities involving wildland fire crews. But considerable information already is known about events leading to the burn-over that killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Because the fire occurred on state land and the victims were part of a city fire department, there has been much greater access to facts than normally occurs when only federal agencies are involved.

In addition, there have been at least three important public statements by key figures since the incident. Willis' July 23 press conference at the deployment site was followed a week later by statements from Deputy State Forester Payne, who said in a widely publicized interview that mistakes were made by Marsh that put the crew at risk.

Payne said it appears that Marsh violated several basic wildfire rules, including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire, and leading his crew through thick unburned vegetation near a wildfire.

"The division supervisor [Marsh] broke those rules and put those people at risk," Payne said.

Every hotshot knows, experts say, that major mistakes have been made if emergency fire shelters are deployed.

"Shelter deployment is a big marker, a big red flag," says Sall, the Little Tujunga Hotshot who served five years as a crew member. "They should have never been in that situation to begin with."

In early August, Brendan McDonough, the crew's lone survivor and spotter, provided more details of the events leading up to the tragedy, including confirmation that Granite Mountain crew members knew that severe weather was coming and that the fire had turned toward them. They may not have known, however, how fast it was approaching.

McDonough says in a Prescott Courier video that he joined the other crew working the fire, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, after the fire forced him to leave his lookout post just north of where the Granite Mountain crew worked. The Blue Ridge crew was clearing vegetation from a trail that had been cut by a bulldozer. The goal was to set a fire in the path of the wildfire moving rapidly south. But, McDonough says, the intensity of the wildfire forced commanders to pull equipment and personnel off the fire line from 4:15 to 4:30 p.m.

"We pulled off, we parked at a cafe, and during that time, I told my superintendent and captain that we had the vehicles in a safe area," McDonough says. "That's the last time that I talked to [them]."

Payne's and McDonough's statements — along with Prescott personnel records and State Forestry Division, Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, and Department of Public Safety reports (all released in response to public-records requests) — provide extensive details that have been discussed vigorously among wildfire experts.

The huge unanswered question, of course, is why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the safe area that already had been burned and hiked cross-country through thick, unburned chaparral and down into the steep canyon as the powerful thunderstorm was pushing flames directly at them.

Wildland Division chief Willis asserted that the Hotshots simply did what firefighters do.

"My thought on it was they were in a safe location," Willis said during the deployment-site press briefing. "They were not satisfied, and no wildland firefighter is satisfied sitting there and watching the fire progress without doing, taking some action."

Willis said he believes the Granite Mountain crew left its safe position in the charred area to protect the ranch that was on the outskirts of Yarnell, the same ranch that wound up spared because of the clearings the residents dug around it.

"I believe [crew members] felt they weren't doing good where they were at," Willis said. "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."

The Granite Mountain Hotshots took this action even though they left a ridge where they could see the fire and descended into the box canyon where they no longer could observe what it was doing.

"You know, it's all speculation at this point in time," Willis said. "But in my heart, I would know they are not protecting themselves ... They are going to protect that ranch."

Willis said the hotshots — equipped only with shovels, saws, and torches (with which to light backfires) — relied on instinct.

"I have thought about that a lot," he said. "It is ingrained in firefighters' minds. Why do firefighters run into burning buildings when it's just property?"

Willis' assessment has outraged retired hotshots. In particular, his view that the Granite Mountain Hotshots were willing to risk their lives to protect structures conflicts with fundamental principles of wildland firefighting.

Dick Mangan, the retired wildfire investigator who now runs a wildfire-consulting business in Missoula, Montana, says he never jeopardized the safety of his crew to save a structure or even an entire evacuated town of buildings.

"The hell with the town of Yarnell," Mangan says. "If [it has] to burn up to keep my firefighters alive, then that's what we're going to do."

In the seven years he spent on a crew, former hotshot superintendent Rod Wrench says, he did not worry about structural protection either.

"That's why the hell [there is] fire insurance," says Wrench, who served on the Del Rosa Hotshots from 1967 to 1970 before becoming superintendent of the Little Tujunga Hotshots in California's Angeles National Forest through 1973.

A former hotshot superintendent in Arizona who continues to fight wildfires says a wildland firefighter always must respect the fire he is facing, a principle he sums up with the expression: "Let the big dog eat."

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty