Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation Ignored Major Mistakes by the State
The investigation report states that at 3:50 p.m., an air-attack officer notified Marsh that the fire had reversed direction, was heading quickly toward Yarnell, and could arrive in one to two hours. The air-attack officer also told Marsh that the crew's vehicles may be in the path of the fire.
Marsh told this officer that he had a plan to address the issue. The investigation report, however, doesn't elaborate on what Marsh's plan was. The air-attack plane then left the area because the pilot was approaching the limit of hours he could fly legally in one day.
The exchange between the air-attack officer and Marsh was another opportunity where a safety officer or an independent division supervisor could've played a key role by clarifying Marsh's intentions and advising him to keep the crew in the charred zone.
That Granite Mountain parked its vehicles on ground that later burned and the operations chief's admission that the fire "outperformed our expectations" show that Arizona' wildfire managers failed to anticipate the Yarnell fire's potential intensity and direction during a time of year when monsoon storms are frequent, critics believe.
Basic "situational awareness" of wildfire behavior, Orozco says, didn't occur in regard to the Yarnell Hill Fire.
Sonny "Tex" Gilligan and Joy Collura began their hike up the Weaver Mountains at 4 a.m. on Sunday, June 30. The avid hikers and part-time cave dwellers wanted to get a close look at the fire atop the mountain. They knew the backcountry inside out and were very familiar with the difficulty of hiking through dense desert shrubs.
On their way up the mountain, they bushwhacked through the box canyon where the Granite Mountain crew later perished. The hikers already were at the top of the mountain when they saw the Granite Mountain Hotshots coming up a two-track trail about 9:18 a.m.
Gilligan, an experienced outdoorsman and former cowboy and miner, was shocked at the hotshot crew's condition.
"What I saw was a group of men [who] were totally spent. They looked like they were tired. They weren't somebody you would want to fight a fire," Gilligan says. "They needed rest."
The hikers stayed on the mountain until about 2 p.m. with temperatures hovering about 103 degrees. They observed the crew from time to time throughout the day. The crew, they said, didn't appear to be doing much active work.
Gilligan says their inactivity led him to believe that the fire was a "controlled burn." It appeared "they were actually trying to let it go, and they just wanted to clear this brush off this mountain," he says.
Gilligan and Collura saw the fire take off about 12:30 p.m. as it swept over a hill below the mountain in about 14 minutes. Gilligan estimates that it covered about 300 acres in just a few minutes.
"We were looking at . . . rolls of fire, fire jumping up 40, 50 feet in the air," Gilligan recalls. "No way are we were going to hang around there."
Throughout the morning, the hikers watched thunderstorms building to the northeast, near Prescott. Gilligan knew the storms could affect the fire. "When there's a thunderstorm in an area like this, that wind can change quickly, and it can change fast," Gilligan says. "That's where the danger is."
The investigation report doesn't mention what Gilligan and Collura observed about the fire's behavior or about the crew's condition, even though the hikers were the last people to see the Granite Mountain Hotshots alive. Nor does the report provide any details of the crew's workload the previous month, mention that June 30 was the crew's scheduled day off, and that the crew had worked 28 days in June.
"We don't know the condition of the crew [from the report]," says wildfire expert Campbell, noting that this is a crucial missing element in the investigation.
Lead investigator Jim Karels, in an interview after releasing the report, dismissed a statement by federal dispatchers at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque that the only Hotshot crew available on June 30 initially was the Blue Ridge Hotshots (who indeed were deployed to Yarnell).
Karels insisted that the SWCC never stated that only one crew would be available. "No, absolutely not," he said. (The SWCC has declined to comment.)
The state Forestry Division's dispatch log, however, shows that an Arizona dispatcher requested at 6:21 p.m. on June 29 that the SWCC send two hotshot crews to Yarnell by 6 a.m. the next day. A SWCC dispatcher responded four minutes later, stating, "I can fill one with Blue Ridge. That will be the only [hotshot crew] I have for tomorrow, though."
Karels says the SWCC never turned down a request for Granite Mountain to be sent to the fire, but instead the SWCC "kicked it back" to the state and instructed the state to fill it "internally" with Granite Mountain.
Yet no such exchange between the SWCC and the state Forestry Division appears in Arizona dispatch logs.
Former hotshot supervisors suggest that one reason the SWCC initially stated that only Blue Ridge was available was because Granite Mountain would be working its 13th consecutive day on its scheduled day off. By doing this, the crew would've been unavailable later in the week for an assignment out of the area.
In any case, there's no question that Granite Mountain had only two days off in June and that the Yarnell Hill fire was its 26th day in the month on a fire line. The hotshots spent two days working at the crew station or on "fuels reduction." The crew often worked 16-hour shifts, SWCC records state.
Campbell believes fatigue may have been a major factor in the crew's decision to come off the mountain rather than remain in "the black." Campbell suggests that Marsh and Steed knew that the crew was tired, hungry, and low on water. The option of staying on the mountain all night wasn't appealing, nor was following the long trail down to Yarnell that the two hikers had taken safely a few hours earlier.
Campbell believes the Granite Mountain crew concluded that its best course of action -- one that would allow members to rest and be ready to re-engage the fire the next day -- was to get off the mountain as soon as possible by hiking through the box canyon to the ranch safety zone.
"They knew the rules were against them when they were going downhill in the green," Campbell believes.
But, he says, rules don't always stop hotshots from attempting to accomplish a mission.
"The culture of a hotshot crew is a problem," Campbell says. "They aren't one to hold back. They are braver than they ought to be."