Granite Mountain Hotshots Were Asked If They Could Protect Yarnell
A state fire supervisor asked the Granite Mountain Hotshots whether they could assist in Yarnell minutes before the 19-member crew left a burned-over safety zone along a mountain ridge and began its descent into a chaparral-choked box canyon where the men died in a firestorm.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
The request, which was not disclosed in the Serious Accident Investigation Report commissioned by the Arizona Forestry Division (released in late September), provides important new insight into why the Granite Mountain crew decided to abandon their safe position as a powerful thunderstorm rapidly approached the wildfire raging below.
courtesy of Joy Collura Hikers took this photo of the Granite Mountain Hotshots marching up a trail. They died later that day.
According to a detailed report released December 4 by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health on the state's management of the Yarnell Hill Fire, Forestry Division Planning Operations Section Chief Paul Musser asked a Granite Mountain Hotshot leader, about 4 p.m. on June 30, "if [he] could spare resources to assist in Yarnell."
photo courtesy of AZFS A July 19 memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots
Residents of the community were under a mandatory evacuation order at that time.
Musser, according to the ADOSH report, was uncertain whether he was talking to Granite Mountain Supervisor Eric Marsh or to crew Captain Jesse Steed.
It appears that Granite Mountain initially refused the request.
"Either Marsh or ... Steed responded that they were committed to the black (safe zone) and that Musser should contact" the Blue Ridge Hotshots who already were working on the valley floor near Yarnell, the ADOSH report says.
But moments later, at 4:01 p.m., Granite Mountain crew member Chris MacKenzie captured a fragment of a crucial radio conversation between Marsh and Steed. The 18-second video appears to have been edited into two parts. MacKenzie soon died along with the other 18 crew members, but his video camera was recovered.
In the video, Marsh's voice can be heard coming from a radio held by Steed. "I was just saying, I knew this was coming when I called you and asked what your comfort level was," Marsh said in the first short video. "I could just feel it, you know."
The video fades and then picks up with Steed stating, "The fire had almost made it to the two-track road" on which they had hiked in that morning.
Following this conversation, the ADOSH report states, Granite Mountain and Marsh "decided to move their position."
Musser and Field Operations Section Chief Todd Abel, who had direct command over Granite Mountain during the Yarnell Hill Fire, "reportedly were not aware" of the route Marsh and Granite Mountain would take, the ADOSH report states.
It is unclear why Musser made a request for Granite Mountain to move when the crew was under Abel's direct supervision. "It's kind of odd that they both seemed to be" communicating with Granite Mountain in a relatively brief time frame, says a senior firefighter involved in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
A few minutes before Musser's request, at 3:45 p.m., Abel and Marsh had a radio conversation and discussed the approaching thunderstorm and their concerns about its possible effect on the fire, the ADOSH report says. At that time, Marsh did not suggest that the crew planned to move.
"Marsh reportedly stated that Granite Mountain was safe and in the black," the ADOSH report states.
But a few minutes later, after Musser's call to the crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were on the move. Marsh then had a brief conversation with an airborne fire manager.
The communication was included in an earlier investigative report commissioned by the Forestry Division and released in September.
Marsh, according to the Serious Accident Investigation Report, said, "We're going down our escape route to our safety zone." The airborne supervisor then asked, "Is everything okay?" to which Marsh replied, "Yes, we're just moving."
Marsh, according to the recently released ADOSH report, provided additional details about the crew's movement when he told Blue Ridge Superintendent Brian Frisby via radio that Granite Mountain members were "picking our way through the black" in the direction of a road "in the bottom out towards the ranch."
The place to which Marsh referred apparently was the Boulder Springs Ranch about 600 yards east of where the Granite Mountain crew wound up deploying their fire shelters.
Frisby, however, understood Marsh to be saying the crew was moving along a different road where Marsh and Frisby had met earlier in the day and toward a different ranch, the ADOSH report states.
The radio conversation between Frisby and Marsh now looms as a crucial moment in the events leading up to the catastrophic burn-over. Frisby's account of his communication with Marsh was included in written documentation that Blue Ridge turned over to ADOSH investigators.
But ADOSH's attempt to interview Frisby directly was blocked repeatedly by the U.S. Forest Service. The Blue Ridge Hotshots are assigned to the Coconino National Forest and based in the small Mogollon Rim community of Happy Jack.
"It should be noted that the United States Department of Agriculture-Forest Service denied ADOSH's requests to interview" the Blue Ridge Hotshots, the report mentions.
The mysterious 18-second video reportedly was made available to Forestry's Serious Accident Investigation Team in July, but it was not included in the team's investigation report publicly released on September 28. The Prescott Courier, however, posted the video on its website the same morning that the report was released.
In an accompanying story, the Courier reported that MacKenzie's father provided a copy to Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were part of the city's Wildland Division. Willis turned over the video to the Serious Accident Investigation Team, Prescott spokesman Pete Wertheim says.
It is unknown why the video and Musser's communication with Granite Mountain leadership were not included in the Forestry Division-sponsored report. Jim Karels, the Florida State Forester who headed the team that wrote the report, did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Forestry Division did not respond to New Times' request for comment about Musser's conversation with Granite Mountain leadership.
The ADOSH report cited a number of crucial mistakes by the Arizona Forestry Division that first were uncovered by New Times in articles published in August and October, including:
• State Forestry failed to have a required safety officer present at the fire who could have closely monitored Granite Mountain's movements and interceded to prevent the crew from moving into a dangerous area.
• The state did not prepare required fire-analysis reports crucial to proper fire-control management. The failure prevented fire managers from "proactively" battling the blaze and instead forced them to continually react to events as they unfolded.
• Forestry's emphasis on protecting structures ahead of firefighter safety led to the deployment of firefighters into dangerous situations to attempt to protect property that was "indefensible."
• The Division did not adequately consider that the Granite Mountain crew could have been fatigued from working 28 days in June, including 26 days fighting fires, and had just come off a 16-hour shift the day before. (June 30, when the crew was incinerated, was its regularly scheduled day off.) Consequently, fatigue may have been a factor in the hotshots' decision to move out of the safe zone as the wildfire intensified and a thunderstorm rapidly approached.
On December 4, the state Industrial Commission approved ADOSH's recommendation to issue three workplace citations against the Forestry Division and fine it $559,000. The fines include a $25,000 payment to the survivors of each Granite Mountain hotshot. Forestry has until December 26 to appeal the citations.
The ADOSH report also reveals new, important facts ignored or hidden by investigators who produced the Serious Accident Investigation Report released three months ago. This failure to disclose crucial information -- including Musser's conversation with Granite Mountain leaders and the 18-second video -- has undermined the state Forestry Division-commissioned report's credibility, according to expert sources interviewed by New Times.
"I don't think anybody should be trusting that first report anymore," comments retired wildfire death investigator Ted Putnam, who long has questioned wildfire-investigation reports sponsored by involved agencies. "My real concern after having watched this over the years is that the coverups are getting worse."
The ADOSH report, sources say, raises the specter of an ongoing coverup because of the U.S. Forest Service's refusal to allow Blue Ridge Hotshots to be interviewed.
"Until this week, I have never heard of the USFS refusing to allow [its] firefighters to provide information about a fire, fatality, or otherwise," says Bill Gabbert, a retired wild-lands firefighter who publishes the online publication Wildfire Today. "I assume they did it to protect [their agency] from possible criminal charges or civil suits."
The ADOSH report discloses for the first time that Granite Mountain's sole survivor, who acted as a lookout, also faced possible death and serious injury. Prescott Fire Department officials and the Forestry Division-commissioned report maintained that Brendan McDonough was not in immediate danger even though the fire overran his lookout position within minutes of his abandoning the post.
In addition to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the ADOSH reports states, another 61 firefighters also faced serious injury or death. Those threats occurred while they fought the fire as it approached Peeples Valley at midday and later during a last-minute evacuation from Yarnell and Glen Ilah as powerful downdrafts from a collapsing thunderstorm created a conflagration that shot smoke and embers more than 37,000 feet into the air.
"It's amazing that they didn't lose a lot more firefighters," says Gary Olson, a retired hotshot superintendent and former criminal investigator for the federal Bureau of Land Management. "In my 10 years on the fire line, at no time did I ever experience anything that came close to the scenario . . . described in the ADOSH report."