Arizona state official says Granite Mountain Hotshots made mistakes

Granite Mountain Hotshots

Granite Mountain Hotshots

(UPDATE at 12:20 p.m. MDT, August 1, 2013)

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said Wednesday that Arizona State Forestry Division Deputy Director Jerry Payne actually did make the statements about the cause of the fatalities that John Dougherty, of Investigative Media, reported. She said this, in spite of the vigorous denials made earlier by Payne and the department’s spokesman, Jim Paxon. Investigative Media has more details on these developments.

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(UPDATE at 12:15 a.m. MDT, July 31, 2013)

The Arizona State Forestry Division has issued an apology for the “unauthorized opinions” expressed by Deputy Director Jerry Payne.

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(Originally published at 12:42 p.m. MDT, July 30, 2013)

An official with the Arizona State Forestry Division told a reporter Monday that the Granite Mountain Hotshots made mistakes and violated procedures that led to the deaths of 19 members of their crew on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.

John Dougherty, of Investigative Media, recently interviewed Jerry Payne, a deputy director of the Arizona State Forestry Division, who told him that Eric Marsh, the Superintendent of the hotshot crew, was serving as Division Supervisor the day of the fatal accident. One of the captains on the crew took Mr. Marsh’s place and the hotshots were assigned to Marsh’s Division.

Mr. Dougherty wrote that the deputy director told him that while the hotshot crew was hiking from the black, or burned area of the fire toward the ranch house:

…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.”

The crew became entrapped by the fire and died while they were still 1,900 feet away from the safety zone at the ranch house.

Mr. Payne also said, according to Mr. Dougherty:

The lawsuits are going to start. The sharks are circling.

You can read the entire article at Investigative Media.

Our analysis

It is surprising that key officials are making statements such as the ones above by the state and the opinions expressed earlier this month by Chief Willis of Prescott Fire Department. After most serious accidents or fatalities on wildland fires, individuals wait until the official investigation report is released — and even then may be very reluctant to talk about the incident. It could cause a person to wonder what motivated Mr. Willis and Mr. Payne to be so vocal.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

22 thoughts on “Arizona state official says Granite Mountain Hotshots made mistakes”

  1. I’ll try to find the link to a very poignant paper written by then Smokejumper Cindy Super (now with the Montana DNRC) about a staff ride to the Little Big Horn Battlefield and Mann Gulch. In the paper Cindy asks the question (paraphrased) “Based on the information General Custer had on the morning of the battle, would you have done anything different?”

    Quoting Jerry Payne from the article, ” 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”.

    We do not know what information Eric Marsh had and we’ll never know what he was thinking.

  2. We know the fire quals of Chief Willis from the Prescott FD, but I’m curious about the wildland fire experience of Jerry Payne, Deputy Director of the AZ State Forestry Division? Is he a Forester with loads of fire experience, or a political appointee? What are/were his Red Card Quals? And why are these folks making comments before the “official report” has been issued? Looks to me (a non-Arizonan) that they are trying to influence the media and public BEFORE the report comes out in order to cover their own butts – but that’s just one person’s opinion!

    1. Apologies for not thoroughly reading the original report: looks like Jerry Payne has good, credible wildland fire quals. My error! But the question still lingers: why the rush to “throw someone under the bus” before the official report is released?

  3. Finally some one is talking about the obvious! Although, it will do no good to use this to win law suits and put these families through more pain. Let us talk about what happened, not hide the truth, and at the same time support the ones hurting and left behind. I read the article, and the only thing that was distasteful and inappropriate was the comment about the law suits, everything else was right on. We have to remember that those leaders were human, just like us. They, as do I, make mistakes. Unfortunately theirs cost them and us dearly. We will always remember them for the great friends, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and so much more that they were.

    1. What are your fire qualifications? It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback isn’t it? If you don’t want to hurt the families, then don’t comment on what you don’t understand.

  4. I agree with your assessment, Bill. Payne is premature in making these kinds of statements – as is Dougherty. They need to ‘cool it’ until the investigative report comes out – as these kinds of statements from these individuals is highly irregular.

  5. They Will cover up anything they can, To prevent from getting sued and this goes to blaming the guys in charge that day….We all need to wait until the report comes out and then make remarks, But i still wont trust their report, Just like any of the other ones they put out

    1. Who are “They”? This is a State fire with City fatalities. Way different than Mann Gulch, Dude, South Canyon or Esperanza. Please clarify who “they” are and what your basis for distrust is.

  6. It’s possible Payne just shot his career in its foot. If I were a crew supe I’d most certainly decline any assignment working for him. Forever.

  7. I saw the entire Chief Willis interview (the one that was about a 40 minute two part video at the death site). I did not see anything in that was disrespectful or accusatory, certainly not Mr. Payne. What did Chief Willis say that was untoward?

  8. Unless you have been on the hot seat in one of these situations, it is hard to understand how much pressure there is on you to say something. Once you are talking (unless you are a politician), it is very difficult to meter every thought or word. Once said it cannot be unsaid, and the lesson to NOT say anything has come one interview too late.

  9. The only ones who truly know what went down and made tbe decisions, are no longer able to tell their version of the events…. Whether its the chief, deputy chief or some other fire expert, we May never know why 19 lives were sacrificed in the name of fire fighting. Everyone has their own “spin” aka blame, on the event… But we will never know for sure… Take it all with a grain of salt, and consider tbe source…. Still peeved that 19 of my fellow ff’s died saving questionable values, but it is what it is. Cant change history, just gotta make sure it does not happen again…

    1. “Cant change history, just gotta make sure it does not happen again…”.

      I certainly hope we can accomplish that.

  10. Jerry Payne needs to find another line of work, I can only hope that Scott Hunt will dismiss his Deputy and hire someone who will not be an embarassment to the Arizona Fire Community. To the Families and Friends of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and to Chief Willis and Chief Fraijo I am sorry for the pain this moron at the Forestry Division has caused.

  11. Something is systemically wrong with a culture that allows a Deputy Director to indicate that safety protocols ( 10 SFO & 18 WOS) have been routinely ignored as priorities, and to accept calculated risk as a viable alternative decision making.
    We can only hope that a culture with a renewed commitment to safety and priority selection will come from this tragedy.
    Those in leadership positions that feel and support calculated risk as acceptable
    decision making – you are truly dangerous. LCES actually works if you commit to it.
    Personally, throwing the division supervisor / superintendent under the bus when he cannot defend himself is deplorable after all you trained him.
    Success by luck is not a win it is a postponement of the inevitable.

    1. This appears to be a case of those involved at State Forestry attempting to distance themselves from this tragedy. I agree fully with your post.

      1. Either publicly or behind-the-scenes there is predictably quite a lot of finger pointing to blame going on. And not surprisingly everyone involved is a target and being a target is an unpleasant experience.

        I have confidence in the investigators getting to the truth. Keep in mind that some investigators are officials with their expertise and other investigators are reporters with their professional ability and desire to seek the truth.

        We all are awaiting the truth and in the end, regardless of the source, the truth will lead to meaningful changes that surely will save lives in the future.

        Until the truth is established I agree with everyone else that inevitable speculation, sometimes hurtful, should not be aired publicly.

        1. The TRUTH?
          Really …
          Re-read the Dude, South Canyon and 30 Miles investigations and tell us that the truth was found.
          Unless this investigation team is significantly different the report will consist of,
          – a timeline of events
          – a weather and fire behavior reconstruction
          – an analysis of the Standard Firefighting Orders and Watch Out Situations
          – and an evaluation of fire shelters and PPE.
          These may contain facts but are far from the truth about what occurred that day.
          Ted Putnam attempted to bring awareness of “human factors” in decision making in both the Dude and South Canyon investigations. He refused to sign the South Canyon final report when the investigation “team” did not support including human factors considerations.
          Without an understanding of human factors in decision making the lessons will not be learned.

  12. I think Rosie is exactly right. Truth is an elusive thing. To have any hopes of uncovering it, you must first ask the right questions and then, like a gold miner, do lots of digging. If you doubt this, you should first read the official investigative report of the South Canyon Fire. Then read John Maclean’s “Fire on the Mountain.” Which was better at uncovering why 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain? The truth may not always be pretty…..
    but at least it’s the truth.

    1. Remembering back, it seems like the South Canyon Team had 30-45 days to issue their report? John Maclean had about 4-5 years to write his book. Are you suggesting that Investigation Reports on wildland fire fatalities should have an open-ended completion date? This works for the NTSB investigations on aircraft crashes, but will it be acceptable in our wildfire world? We all want the truth about these events, but sometimes the truth is elusive, and is in the eye of the beholder.

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