Yarnell Hill Fire: Prescott's Wildlands Fire Commander Responds to New Times' Cover Story on Granite Mountain Hotshots
Editor's note: New Times is taking the extraordinary measure of publishing a series of complaints by Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis about our coverage of the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. We're doing this because Willis' letter is itself newsworthy, and his statements as a public official and the only surviving member of Prescott's wildlands command staff are of great interest to the public and to our readers. In what follows, we respond to the chief's concerns. New Times and Willis don't agree on many of the points he raises, but the discourse is important and in line with our commitment to dig deeply and report fearlessly about controversial issues in Arizona.
Photo illustration by New Times
After refusing to answer written questions or to be interviewed before publication of our August 22 cover story, "Lambs to Slaughter," about the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain firefighters, Prescott hotshots boss Darrell Willis sent New Times a letter containing what he claims are 22 inaccuracies in the article.
Courtesy of AZSF A pyrocumulonimbus cloud rises over the town of Yarnell at 4:47 p.m. on June 30 at the exact moment when the Granite Mountain Hotshots sent a radio message that the crew's 19 men were deploying emergency fire shelters.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, and City Attorney Jon Paladini didn't respond to our communications seeking comment before publication, nor did the state Forestry Division respond to questions concerning its assignment of the hotshots, operated by Prescott, to the Yarnell Hill Fire.
John Dougherty Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis at a death-scene press conference July 23.
After publication, Willis and the state identified three factual errors in New Times' interpretation of public records.
The errors don't change fundamental premises of the story: The Granite Mountain Hotshots failed to meet minimum hotshot standards, federal officials initially refused to dispatch the crew to Yarnell, the state failed to contain what was at first a small fire through its slow and ineffective response, and former hotshot superintendents and a former wildfire accident investigator raised serious concerns over the crew's apparent priority of placing structure protection ahead of its own safety.
Consequently, New Times stands by the author's reporting in this article, which was based upon public records available at the time of publication. We decline Chief Willis' request to retract conclusions and opinions drawn in "Lambs to Slaughter."
New Times corrected two errors in our August 29 edition, which are attached to the cover story online. The article stated that Willis, whom the crew worked directly under, had no wildland firefighting experience as a member of a hotshot crew, when he does. And the article mistakenly says ALB was the designation of the federal Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which dispatches firefighting crews in Arizona and New Mexico. Willis states in his letter that ALB is the initials of a person who worked at the SWCC. The state Forestry Division, however, recently said ALB is the initials of a person not affiliated with the SWCC. ABQ is the correct designation for Albuquerque.
The SWCC comes up prominently in the story because the federal office told the state Forestry Division that it had only the Blue Ridge Hotshots available for the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, in response to the state's request for two hotshot crews (see highlight section on pages seven, eight, and nine). Though the SWCC has declined to comment since the tragedy, the center's initial refusal to authorize sending the Granite Mountain Hotshots appears based on the amount of time the crew had spent working that month. Sunday, June 30, was the crew's scheduled day off and was its 28th work day that month. The state e-mailed the "resource order" directly to Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh ordering the crew to report to Yarnell.
According to Prescott records obtained September 3, New Times made a third error. The cover story says Marsh was in the field with his crew at Yarnell for the first time this fire season since he was placed on light duty April 18. But the recently released records show that Marsh 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.