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