Yarnell Hill Fire: Prescott's Wild-Lands Fire Commander Responds to New Times' Cover Story on Granite Mountain Hotshots

Categories: News

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Photo illustration by New Times
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 wild-lands 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.

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.

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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.
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John Dougherty
Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis at a death-scene press conference July 23.
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.

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.

See Also: Closer Look: How 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots Died in the Yarnell Hill Fire

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.

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19 comments
lardosardo
lardosardo

Sounds like some serious stuff to me man, Wow.


www.Anon-Werkz.tk

hurricaneric
hurricaneric moderator

Here are two comments we received via e-mail:

eric marsh may have erred moving from a safe haven into harms way but the hotshot crew didn't meet minimum standards & had time/duty/rest issues & should have never been sent into this fire.

PERSONAL INFO:
Ken Kloppel
Phoenix Arizona

and ...

Subject:
Yarnell Hill Fire stories

Letter:
I just wanted to thank you (and the Phoenix New Times) for your investigative reporting on the Yarnell Hill fire.  Just when I was ready to give up totally on the 'new media' I came across your stories.  It is an uncommon occurrence, in my opinion, to find such thoroughly researched, well written, grammatically correct and punctuated articles in this day and age.  (This letter probably has more than one but, I don't get paid for it :) )

Articles such as this show that one man, with some support, can make a difference.  Thanks.

Pat Brady

DesertRat70
DesertRat70

If the local residents count for anything, many have stated that it was in fact the state of AZ that failed to respond adequately to the fire. When it was first reported, the state did very little to attack it when it had the chance to extinguish it while it was small. Residents were angry that it was given such little regard until the following day when the deaths occurred. 


jonnyd
jonnyd

Chief Willis, you had chances to respond to everything you're complaining about, you refused, and now you're complaining? Plus, now you're blaming the Feds to ABC?

bwilliams
bwilliams

I just read the Chief's letter and have a few serious questions:

It's obvious he's issued a thinly veiled threat of litigation.

Is the City of Prescott aware that he's threatening litigation? Does he have the authority to threaten litigation? Is the City of Prescott aware that he's speaking on the City's behalf, as an official of the City?

rickaz59
rickaz59

When it comes to fighting fires, Chief Willis has too little, too late.  When it comes to offering facts, he has the same problem.

Scott Orr
Scott Orr

"Fearless," huh? I noted you didn't describe the NT as "humble." Which is good.

glyphhunter
glyphhunter

I'd kind of like to know who owns that ranch they were hoping to protect...

Bob Cunningham
Bob Cunningham

Well, I think he is working on covering his ass.

garylolson
garylolson

PS, and keep your personal religious beliefs and fervor out of this, I am a Christian as well, but this country would not tolerate a Muslim saying  Allāhu Akbar or any other similar phrase in regards to this incident, and I do not have any tolerance for you invoking God's Will in this incident either. This horrific event was not God's Will, this disaster was man made.

garylolson
garylolson

Darrell, all anyone has to do, is to go back and review all of the statements you made at the Granite Mountain Hotshot Memorial and in the interview you gave out at the site.

The arrogance and the complete ignorance of your statements not only staggered me, but made me very angry, the more you talked, the angrier I got. And I still am.

Your philosophies regarding structural firefighting and the duties you espoused for wildland firefighting hand crews in structural firefighting demonstrates a complete lack of understanding and comprehension of sound wildland firefighting principles and tactics.

Do you really think that just because you went out as a ride-a-long with the crew a few times, you have hotshot experience? That means I have jet fighter pilot experience because I watched the Blue Angels fly a few times.

Your deeply flawed values in regards to the role wildland firefighting hand crews should play in structural firefighting were either responsible for the deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots…or they never listened to you…take your pick. You bought it…you own it…deal with it, but please don’t do it again.

pldfam3
pldfam3

@garylolson UNREAL Gary!!!!   Your comments are not helping anything.  Maybe you should just keep your comments and thoughts to yourself.  DIdn't your mother ever teach you that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all?  

nkbreen2
nkbreen2

@garylolson The ongoing references to God, and his "other plans for these men" makes one want to scream. It was a tragic collision of many errors.  Thank you for "speaking truth to power" here.

garylolson
garylolson

@pldfam3 @garylolson So it is "Gary" to you pldfam3, do you feel like you know me? At least I had the courage to use my real name and to stand by my comments. You on the other hand...are a coward using the anonymity of a made up internet alias, what did your MOTHER teach you? Comment using your real name and I will consider whether or not you, your comments and your opinions have any merit whatsoever...Mr., Mrs., or Ms. pldfam3.    

pldfam3
pldfam3

@Jukes @pldfam3 @garylolson it applies to everyone!!  but what did Darrell say that wasn't nice?  Gary is moking Darrell's experience, saying that he is ignorant and then Gary goes and says that he feels threatned.  GIVE ME A FREAKING BREAK!  It's not about you!!!  

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