Families of the Fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots Are Not Getting the Answers They Need

Categories: News analysis

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Graham Smith
If anyone knows why the Granite Mountain Hotshots left a safe area on top of the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell and descended into a box canyon that became the worst death trap in the nationwide history of such crews, it's Brendan McDonough.

The only survivor of the 20-member hotshot crew that perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, McDonough, 23, is in the unique position to have heard some, if not all, of the discussions between Granite Mountain Supervisor Eric Marsh and Captain Jesse Steed in the moments before Marsh, Steed, and the others died.

What McDonough heard could explain why the crew moved off the mountain and whether it was ordered to do so by fire commanders. But McDonough isn't speaking publicly, and two state-sponsored investigations into the tragedy have shed no light on what he heard over Granite Mountain's intra-crew radio channel.


For complete coverage of the aftermath of the Yarnell Hill Fire, visit our Special Reports page.

His silence has angered one widow who believes it's time for McDonough to share what he knows.

"The answers I've received from him are brief, and clearly he's been coached," Juliann Ashcraft writes in reply to an e-mail sent to 12 families who are plaintiffs in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Arizona Forestry Division, the Central Yavapai Fire District, and individual fire commanders.

For many wildlands firefighters, there is no rational explanation for Granite Mountain to have left its safety zone on top of the Weavers. The crew embarked on a treacherous path that violated basic firefighting rules by descending into a box canyon packed with volatile chaparral at the hottest time of day with a severe thunderstorm approaching and an extreme fire less than a mile away.

"It just makes my stomach turn," says Bob Powers, a retired wildlands firefighter in Twin Falls, Idaho, who has closely tracked the investigations into Yarnell Hill. Powers has a special interest in the tragedy because his father was one of 15 firefighters killed in the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire in Northern California. "Why in the world would anybody walk down there in that heavy brush with the fire less than three-quarters of a mile away? It didn't make any sense."

The two investigations into the tragedy -- the Serious Accident Investigation report sponsored by the state Forestry Division, released last September, and an investigation by the Arizona Industrial Commission's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, released in December -- state that McDonough heard Marsh and Steed discussing their "options" of whether to stay in the safe, burned-over area that wildlands firefighters call "the black," or to move the crew.

Neither investigation provides detail about what options were discussed by Marsh and Steed, nor whether there was sharp disagreement, as recent reports suggest, over the proposed course of action that McDonough may have overheard on Granite Mountain's radio channel -- a frequency not monitored by senior commanders.

Instead, there only are oblique references to the Marsh-Steed discussions, with McDonough careful not to cast blame by telling ADOSH investigators that the fatal entrapment was just a freak accident.

McDonough stated during an October 10, 2013, interview with ADOSH: "It's not that it wasn't a wrong decision. It just wasn't the right one, if that makes sense?"

Yarnell was under evacuation orders at the time the crew left its safety zone high above the fray and began its ultimately unsuccessful attempt to re-engage with the fire raging in the valley below.

"If they could be useful somewhere else, I think they felt honor bound to do that," Prescott Wildlands Division Chief Darrell Willis says of crew members. Willis oversaw the Granite Mountain Hotshots but was not with the crew in Yarnell. "They weren't a crew that would just be good without doing anything. They wanted to do good for other people. So whatever that was, and if they thought they could re-engage, they probably would [try]."

While the crew may have had noble intent, the tactical decision to move out of the black was clearly a disaster. How that decision came about, who was involved, and whether there was dissent, pressure, or objections from fire commanders to move are crucial questions that remain a mystery that McDonough might be able to help solve.

McDonough has been treated gently by the media because of the magnitude of the loss of
his colleagues and friends. He declined to be interviewed for this story or to respond to e-mailed questions concerning the discussions between Marsh and Steed.

McDonough's silence supports -- whether intentional or not -- the basic conclusion in the original investigation report that no one did anything wrong in Yarnell. The Forestry Division is expected to rely heavily on this conclusion in the pending wrongful-death suit and in its appeal of a $559,000 fine levied by ADOSH for gross negligence in managing the fire.

Fourteen months have passed since the 19 young men died in the most horrific manner imaginable. Debate continues to rage on how an experienced hotshot crew ended up in the worst possible location that provided no escape from the wall of flames racing across the incendiary desert scrub. This isn't supposed to happen to an "elite" wildfire crew.
"I guess it comes down to the fact that, with 19 men dead, with all the interviews, we still don't know why," Prescott's Chief Willis says. "I still want to know why."

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36 comments
jeffmichale
jeffmichale

working on wildfires is inherently risky and the guys and gals who work on them no that.  good information htat is more htan rumor about the yarnell hill fire is located at this link 


http://yarnellhillfireblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/regarding-sources-for-news-articles-blog-commenters-and-a-certain-blog-commenter-using-multiple-names-in-order-to-post-multiple-comments-appearing-to-be-from-different-people/


but dont expect good gossip.  Eric woudl be ashamed of the fighting on this thread

Jumper85
Jumper85

the only way to make sure this never happens again is for all the unknowns to be known. If Mr. Mcdonough has information that can help the rest of the fire community understand why an experienced leader and crew acted incomprehensibly then I believe he has an ethical responsibility to contribute. No one I know can make true sense of it. A box canyon, heavy fuel, changing weather, no lookout? The world wonders....

I am absolutely sympathetic to the families but Yarnell Hill and episodes like it transcend ordinary courtesies. This is a sentinal event and the truth shouldn't be a casualty of pending litigation or personal sensitivities.

I applaud Mr. Daugherty for his persisitence in this endeavor. Some one needs to keep digging because the rest of us continue to be baffled by offical renditions.

Joe Hill

bbpowers
bbpowers

Dave I am sorry you think I said the crew had a rouge attitude  I found no place in the article I said that.  I guess I consider my self a expert after 33 years as a wild land Fire Fighter, Working on 3 hot shot crews, 4 Forests and reached a level of Type II IC, Air Attack Boss and Safety Officer Type I Including the fact That I also lost a family member to a Wild Fire.  I had a 33 year safety recorded that I would put up against any one.  No deployments, No serious injuries in over 800 Fire assignments.

I am sorry you think I am wrong but I still support your Fire shelter research and the donation I made.


LASERDAVE
LASERDAVE


I regret not responding to JD email request for my thoughts on this story. It is unfortunate and saddening to feel and hear the hurt of some of my fellow family members as it relates to John's reporting. For those of us who didn't participate in John's request for thoughts and information, is on us.


Upon reading this article I am dismayed by the pervasive thread that is wove through this article, in which, quoted by so called EXPERTS, Bob Powers and other unnamed Firefighters stating a “ROUGE” Safety Attitude by GMHS. Admittedly there are plenty of Pictures of the GMHS crew with Cuffs rolled; these same experts don’t seem to notice that Members of the Blue Ridge crew also had Cuffs rolled. All it takes it a look at several Wildland fire videos and you will find at least 50% of crews with rolled cuffs or at the least exposed wrists, this include several of the USFS Shot Crews. Lastly on this subject GMHS did NOT perish because they did or didn’t roll cuffs. Many of them simply Burned to death, and why? Because of the POS Fire Shelter they are provide for the last ditch safety gear.


They also cite parking locations of the GMHS Crew Buggies at Yarnell and the Holloway Fire, first no criticism of the Blue Ridge Crew for Parking in the exact same spot at Yarnell. I do not know the exact circumstances of the Holloway fire, but one of my thoughts is if the crew or all crews didn’t have to hike in many miles, as they definitely did at Yarnell. I am calling Bullshit on all the commenters regarding these issues. Some of you Experts also cite the destroyed ATV on the Wallow fire; some have indicated that the loss of the unit might also contribute to issues at Yarnell. Do any of the Experts know the circumstances related to the loss of this vehicle? Probably not!!!


A lot of Retirees and anonymous active Wildland personnel have made statements that I have Monday Moring Quarterbacked the early periods of the fire, well here they are doing the same, but act like they know best. Well I have found that it is time for me to quit holding back about what I really think and feel. Why was Blue Ridge shown, by their own pictures and videos sitting on their Asses, One guy running a Dozer and 2 more out on a Sunday UTV ride? Why were GMHS and BR, the two “ELITE” crews relegated to working on the end of the fire more suited to Rookies, Cons, or Old Volunteers to work on? I don’t put my most experienced Welder to sweep the floor and have the janitor Weld up a Critical Suspension part for a Race Car.


Where is the call out from the “EXPERTS” on the total lack of capability with the command staff handling of the Fire, from the start to the 30th?


Here is a Comparative View and Thought on USDA/USFS provided Fire Shelters. http://youtu.be/Ps-0cG70hps


To all who view this or have viewed the Shelter Test, the point is to show the weakness of the current shelter design, not to those who already know, but to those whom have no idea, of what Wildland Firefighters are given. This test confirms that there are materials available that will be 100% protective against direct flame contact. Add in a Rescue Respirator and now you have a Fire Safety System.


More detail for those involved in Wildland Firefighting and have had concerns of weight and inside air temp...all valid concerns. The material shown for instance actually is lighter than the existing shelter materials. It also has much higher insulation value, thus keeping the inside the shelter temps survivable.


newtimes
newtimes

If this asshole took the time to look at how PPE is worn, then he would understand that lots of wildland guys have their yellows rolled up. Just search hotshots images and tell me if you notice any other crews with "attitude" This article does nothing but  fuel the ignorant!!!!  Take a look at these photos/links.



http://www.gazettenet.com/home/8072166-95/utah-fire-destroys-13-homes-near-resort


http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MEDIA/stelprdb5156931.jpg


http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2357849/Could-YOU-heat-Inside-danger-exhilaration-lives-elite-firefighters-tackle-Americas-wild-fires.html

Pfing284
Pfing284

Smellthecoffee you are sooooo wrong.  Juliann Ashcraft has been a well-spoken, strong woman who loves her husband.  She is fighting for truth and accountability.  Why is it if someone speaks up they all of a sudden become a target.  Stand strong you wonderful woman, mother and wife.  Stand strong and fight for the truth of what happened to these men and your husband.  Do not let insecure, small minded, jealous people with a computer keyboard to hurt you.  You will change those in government who think they can lie and hide behind gag orders.  Change comes from those who stand up!!  BE STRONG - your comments and actions are right and aboveboard.  These guys need you - hotshots across this nation need you!  

SmelltheCoffee
SmelltheCoffee

Juliann Ashcraft has been after money since the death of her husband, and now she's dragging the sole survivor into her greed for money. Sure she lost her husband, but Brendan McDonough lost 19 members of his crew which were brothers to him. She needs to show a little respect and class and leave him out of her bull$h*t. Ya, he's going to put his neck on the line so Juliann Ashcraft can get paid out and he still is going to be where he is now, I think not. Wake up and get a job if you need money~ welcome to life, it's not fair or just. 

bryantschorn
bryantschorn

Please remove this malicious article it is on factual and slandering this is not how the hotshot community conducts or the granite mountain hotshots were trying to act we have each other's backs to the end and we do not kick each other while were down or stab each other in the back there is no content benefit to this article ...!!!!! that kid is my best friend and i worked 4 crew 7 and live with the supt eric for a summer .. .. its bullshit... o ya from my brokin hart FUCKYOU 

MaskedMagician1967
MaskedMagician1967 topcommenter

I think it's bullshit those families aren't getting the answers to the questions they have.

They deserve closure and justice.

dogbiter
dogbiter

Brilliant story! The coverup of this incident is scandalous. Thanks, New Times, for staying on top of this. Those young men died, and the state learned nothing. It's only worried about covering its ass against lawsuits. Hope those families get answers so they can move on as best they can.

Cozz
Cozz topcommenter

John, you back in Arizona ?

bbpowers
bbpowers

@jeffmichale  This site is not safe the owner will attack you for not agreeing with what you say and will use your personal information against you if you say something the owner dose not agree with I suggest you do not ID your self on this Blog.

bbpowers
bbpowers

@newtimes  OSHA and Federal Law requires That PPE be worn in a safe manor which includes the sleeves be fasten snugly to the wrists and gloves on.  Those not complying are in violation follow proper safety procedures when on the fire line.  If you are miss reading my handle yes I am The Bob Powers mentioned in the article.  Worked on 3 hot shot crews southern California, N. California and Idaho 33 year carrier all Fire management.

Last job Asst. Forest Fire Management Officer, Sawtooth NF. 

Violating Safety Directives dose not make it right.


SmellTheCoffee
SmellTheCoffee

@Pfing284 Your so smart you know everyone is on a gag order and yet you want them to speak out and go to jail for one woman to profit. How fair is that?

bbpowers
bbpowers

@SmelltheCoffee  Julian Ashcraft was left with 4 Children and no support from Prescott.  with any benefits check it out and be respectful.  I was there as a kid and my mother struggled even with the FS benefits. 

sally881
sally881

If you are a family of a slain hotshot and you aren't trying to sue and get money, then you are stupid. The state obviously was negligent in these boys' deaths. How much investigative reporting does it take to make you hardheads see this?

sally881
sally881

Eff u, dumbass! Get a clue.

richdenton
richdenton

@bryantschorn  Wake up and smell the coffee, dumbo. It's obvious that you hotshots aren't exactly Einsteins. Doubt you guys could pass a GED. What does it take to make you see that you were fucked over by the state et al! You are pathetic; there's no other word for it.

sally881
sally881

You never get over a loved one's death, especially when it happens in a situation like this!

Pfing284
Pfing284

@SmellTheCoffee @Pfing284 I will only reply to your stupidity once.  Because honestly your comments show your worth.  BUT yes people should stand up and speak no matter what.  Men died and people need to accept their responsibility in that.  And if you think that this is all about money - look in the mirror - because it seems that is all you think about.  The GMIHS crew lived by Esse Quam Videri and so should all men.  These men put their boots on daily and worked hard.  Try leaving your mother's garage and cover up your whitey tighties, get off your computer and get a life.

SmellTheCoffee
SmellTheCoffee

@sally881 Im all for the families being paid benefits they deserve, but leave Brendan alone, hasn't he been through enough? He obviously can't say more than he already has in the past. It's simply disrespectful he's still mourning and still dealing with it and then you have people badgering him for answers

SmelltheCoffee
SmelltheCoffee

@richdenton Do you have any idea what hotshots do on a daily basis, oh wait you already answered that with your ignorant comments. Why don't you stick to what you know which obviously isn't much. No one needs your input. 

bryantschorn
bryantschorn

@richdenton @bryantschorn 1# eric loved coffee

2# i have an MBA from Harvard University #3how ar youu and this bullshit helping a thing !!! your not #3 till you have lived it .zip it 

#4 nuthing nice to say just dont say it  5# ESSE QUAM VERDE #6 godblessyou 


MaskedMagician1967
MaskedMagician1967 topcommenter

Which could potentially prove negligence on the part of the state 66.

All the more reason why the state is keeping its mouth shut.

SmellTheCoffee
SmellTheCoffee

@Pfing284 @SmellTheCoffee Your ignorance and incomprehension is why you are failing miserably at understanding my points. I bet you wish you were a hot shot or you are one of the family members, no one else would get this emotional and angry over my comments. I will state this again No one should be imprisoned after breaking a gag order to help a lawsuit. If the families wanted to know the truth that's one thing, but they only want to know now that a lawsuit is dependent on it.  Answer me this: would you leave your life, family, loved ones, and any hope of a good future just to tell a little bit of your story to help someone else profit? Thats what Brendan would be doing. How fair is that to him?

66rock
66rock topcommenter

@MaskedMagician1967 My point was just that it isn't closure and justice that they are seeking, it's more bucks.

Onefingersalute
Onefingersalute

SmellTheCoffee    Say What??  "If the families wanted to know the truth that's one thing, but they only want to know now that a lawsuit is dependent on it."


I'm sure you have it on good authority that family survivors from any tragedy, anywhere, would NEVER want to know the truth about what happened to their loved one, UNLESS money was involved.



The USFS has told their employees not to speak with anyone about the incident. Nobody else is under a gag order, including Brendan, who didn't work for the feds.


Hiding the truth, is nothing more that living a lie.  It will eat you up 10 times worse than coming clean.  The truth will ALWAYS set you free. 

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