Official: Hotshot leader violated safety protocols in fatal Yarnell fire
Crew chief 'broke those rules and put those people at risk' while fighting Yarnell Hill Fire
PHOENIX—Eric Marsh, the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, violated wildfire safety protocols when he and 18 of his firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, Jerry Payne, the Arizona State Forestry Division deputy director, said Monday.
Marsh, 43, was given wide latitude to make tactical decisions in the field without first seeking permission from a superior because he was operating as a "division supervisor" for several crews fighting the fire while remaining in the field with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Payne said.
"He (Marsh) was the boss. He was the assigned division supervisor," Payne said.
Payne said that once Marsh became a division supervisor, he delegated command of the hot shot crew to his captain, Jesse Steed. But Marsh remained with the crew, Payne said. Payne said it appears that Marsh violated several basic wildfire rules including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation near a wildfire.
"The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk," Payne said.
Payne released Marsh's name in response to a public records request filed by InvestigativeMedia seeking the names of all division supervisors, operations chiefs and incident commanders during the Yarnell Hill Fire. Payne said there was "some sensitivity" to releasing Marsh's name as one of the division supervisors.
The Prescott Fire Department, which operated the Granite Mountain Hotshots, did not comment about Marsh's role as a division supervisor nor the state's assessment that Marsh violated safety rules.
Firefighters are expected to follow the "10 Standard Fire Orders" and "18 Watch Out Situations" at all times, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildfire management operations across the country.
The fire orders include knowing weather conditions, knowing what the fire is doing at all times, basing all actions on current and expected fire behavior, identifying escape routes and posting lookouts when there is possible danger. The watch-out situations include having "unburned fuel between you and the fire" and not being able to see the fire and not being in communication with anyone who can.
Payne said it appears that Marsh believed he had time to lead his crew from a safe area on a ridge that had already been burned and down a hillside packed with a tangle of chaparral, through the heavily vegetated box canyon and to a safety zone at a nearby ranch where vegetation had been cleared.
At the time, the fire was a mile or two away, Payne said
"What's the fastest way, well hell, we'll just zip down through this valley and we got an hour," Payne said describing what he believes was going through Marsh's mind at the time he made the decision to move this crew "out of the black".
Their goal, Payne believes, was to reach Yarnell and assist with efforts to protect houses and other structures that were underway.
"It was a calculated risk. They didn't even make it halfway," Payne said. "It was a serious miscalculation, in my opinion. It was an honest mistake."
Nevertheless, Payne said Marsh knew that he "should have had somebody watching the fire."
Before making their descent, Payne said that Marsh communicated with the Granite Mountain Hotshot lookout, Brendan McDonough, who was located on a different ridge to the north, and made sure he had an escape route.
McDonough left his position as the fire approached and met up with the Blue Ridge Hotshot team that was operating nearby. McDonough is the only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to survive the fire.
Payne said he didn't believe that the Blue Ridge Hotshots were under Marsh's supervision, but declined to provide the name of the supervisor overseeing the Blue Ridge crew.
Only 5 of 19 found in fire shelters
About the same time Marsh and his crew began the descent into the wooded canyon without a lookout and without direct view of the fire, powerful downdrafts from a rapidly moving thunderstorm approaching from the northeast reversed the direction of the fire and dramatically increased its intensity and ground speed.
The fire streaked across the dried out landscape moving as fast as 12 miles per hour—an unprecedented rate of speed, Payne said. Rather than having an hour to reach the ranch safety zone, the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew would have only minutes before the fire covered two miles.
By the time the Granite Mountain crew reached the base of the ridge the fire had swept into the canyon and was heading straight for the men, forcing them to deploy their fire shelters at about 4:47 p.m. Only five of the men were found inside their shelters when a Department of Public Safety medic reached the deployment site sometime after 5:30 p.m. and found all 19 men dead.
Because of weather conditions, a DPS helicopter was unable to take off for about 30 minutes after hearing over the radio that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had deployed their shelters. And once airborne, the helicopter wasn't sure exactly where the crew was located.
"Nobody knew they dropped off the hill," Payne said.
Payne said that wildland firefighters are supposed to adhere to basic safety protocols known as "LCES", which stands for "Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones." (see sidebar video)
In this case, it appears, based on Payne's assessment, that the Granite Mountain Hotshots left the rulebook behind.
The crew began its descent into the box canyon without a lookout, Payne said.
"As soon as they dropped off that hill, their safety zone was compromised," Payne said. "They had to make a new one."
Nor, Payne said, is there any indication that Marsh sought to communicate with aircraft spotters that had been circling the fire.
It is unclear, however, whether all aircraft had been grounded because of weather conditions by the time the Granite Mountain Hotshots made their decision to move into the canyon, according to aircraft dispatch logs released by the Forestry Division.
The crew also had no clear escape route, but instead bushwacked through thick chaparral that slowed their movement down the hillside. And finally, the hotshots did not have clear access to a safety zone if their path was cut off by fire.
Despite the apparent mistakes, Payne said Marsh's decisions were not unlike those made routinely while fighting wildfires where decisions are often based on a calculated risk rather than strictly by the written rules.
"This is not a mistake that any of the other us would not have made," said Payne, who spent most of his career fighting fires and is certified as a Type 3 incident commander and division supervisor.
An inter-agency incident review team is expected to issue its investigation report to the state Forestry Division in mid-September, Payne said. The Forestry Division is not involved in the investigation and will release the report to the public after it is reviewed by the Prescott Fire Department, the governor's office and family members, he said.
Payne said he expects that litigation will ensue.
"The lawsuits are going to start," he said. "The sharks are circling."
Shortly after this story was posted, Jerry Payne called InvestigativeMedia and stated that he was referring to the 18 Watch Out Situations and not the 10 Standard Fire Orders when he stated: "The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk."
He said wildland firefighters will not always abide by the Watch Out Situations, depending on the circumstances.
There is, however, some over lap between the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations. Fire Order No. 2 states: "Know what your fire is doing at all times."
Watch Out Situation No. 12 states: "Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can."
Fire Order No.4 states: "Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known."
Watch Out Situation No. 3 states: "Safety zones and escape routes not identified."
This report was originally posted on InvestigativeMEDIA.com.
InvestigativeMEDIA founder John Dougherty has more than 30 years of experience in the mainstream and alternative news media working as an investigative reporter, business and political writer, columnist and publisher. He sought the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 2010.