Possible explanation as to why Granite Mountain Hotshots left safety zone

The largest remaining question about the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew in 2013 south of Prescott, Arizona, is why the crew left the safety of a previously burned area and hiked through unburned brush where they were overrun by the fire. Nothing in the two official reports shed any light on this important question.

An article in the April 3 edition of the Arizona Republic includes information that was previously unknown to the public. The newspaper reports that the lone survivor from the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Brendan McDonough who was serving as a lookout away from the crew during the tragedy, overheard a radio conversation between the Division Supervisor, Eric Marsh, and Jesse Steed who was temporarily serving as the Hotshots’ crew boss. Supposedly Mr. Marsh who normally was the Crew Boss or Superintendent of the crew, told Mr. Steed to have the crew leave the safety zone and to join him at a ranch.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

While moving vehicles with the Blue Ridge crew, McDonough allegedly overheard radio traffic between Marsh and Steed, who was with 17 crew members atop a ridge that had burned days earlier.

In the radio call, Marsh told Steed to leave the “black,” which was safe, and join him at the ranch. Steed protested, saying such a move would be dangerous. The radio exchange turned into a dispute.

“My understanding of the argument between Eric Marsh and Jesse Steed … was that Steed did not want to go down,” Paladini said.

According to Paladini’s account, Steed objected until Marsh gave him a direct order to descend.

As the back-and-forth conversation continued, it became apparent that Steed, a U.S. Marine veteran, consented to the command to relocate the team. But he told Marsh he thought it was a bad idea.

As the article goes on to explain, there is a dispute over the accuracy of the report.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

11 thoughts on “Possible explanation as to why Granite Mountain Hotshots left safety zone”

  1. Questions about the fatalities are not going to go away in the foreseeable future, and it will likely get uglier as time passes. I’m afraid that legal proceedings, and testimony under oath by all involved, maybe the only way to hear the entire story?

  2. To all, I ask you this and only this. As facts come to surface, untold stories become told, and as people that where not there begin to speculate please remeber some of us still grieve everytime we see or hear the words Yarnell or Granite mountain Hotshots.

  3. Unless any claims can be verifiably documented, they are merely speculation, which only serves to add to the pain and confusion of the families and the wildland fire community at large. Please remember that there are wives, children, mothers, fathers, and many families that are looking for what solace and closure they may find. Please respect them, and all of us in their extended firefighting family, in your words and deeds.

  4. We must honor those that have fallen in the line of duty to learn from their sacrifice and ensure it is never repeated.

  5. Of course everyone wants the families to be protected. Nobody wants them to suffer anymore. However if the only person left that had a radio to overhear that conversation is now telling us what the conversation was. We should all listen. the wildland community has needs just like the families. We need some accountability for the loss of 19 people in a completely bewildering set of circumstances. Our community has suffered with the silence it is time to have some answers, no matter how tough they are to swallow. with honor and respect for the 19

  6. If the Blue Ridge crew were ever allowed to speak, perhaps we could come closer to putting lingering doubts and questions to rest.

  7. This is not a event the survivors, crew, families, friends what to relive over and over again.

    A undocumented/unrecorded radio conversation that can’t be verified by other parties is a questionable source of information at this late date. Using terms such as alleged, speculated and rumored can be considered in a investigation to some degree but unless backed up by other verified and reliable sources, such as a recording or witness can’t be counted on. I only hope that the lessons learned will in the future will prevent another disaster of this kind from happening again.

    1. I would agree that re-living this event is tough on everyone you mention, but caution against trying to shut down the ongoing discussions and questions about what really happened that day.
      An Investigation that claims that everyone did everything right, but 19 died, doesn’t satisfy anyone in the business, and hopefully not the families and other loved ones of those that died either.
      Probing questions occasionally hit a raw nerve, but if they open a dialogue that leads us to a better understanding of what really happened that day, it may well save numerous other lives in the future.
      Look at Eric Hipke’s excellent 2-part video on South Canyon, made 20 years after the event: we’re still hearing about what happened and learning lessons from that tragedy that are being used in Refresher classes in 2015 and will make a positive difference in coming fire seasons.
      Firefighters are human beings, and human beings make mistakes, sometimes fatal ones: the best we can hope for is that the lessons learned from their deaths will help others avoid a similar fate.

      1. Sir,

        I have no problem with leaving the issue open to comments, new information and debate. I was not very impressed with the results of the official investigation.

        Continued questions should be raised from inside and outside the fire community. Carefully researched, fact checked and documented independent investigations should a be made. I’m just very wary of single source un-confirmed information. Rolling Stone Magazine has become painfully aware of this due to a recent story. As I learned the hard way in federal court as a young Ranger many years ago on a lost case, if it has not been immediately, reported, recorded or written down or having multiple witnesses it didn’t happen. This was from a highly respected judge who pulled me aside after the case.

  8. This blog post is titled “Possible explanation as to why Granite Mountain Hotshots left safety zone,” and lots of bloggers, blog commenters, and gossip journalists have recently seized upon the second-hand rumor that Eric Marsh and Jesse Steed had a significant argument, whereupon Eric Marsh “ordered” Jesse Steed to move the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew to the Boulder Springs Ranch even though Steed was initially reluctant to move.

    But doesn’t this miss the bigger point?

    To wit, if there is honestly a need for a “[p]ossible explanation as to why Granite Mountain Hotshots left safety zone,” don’t we ALREADY have the only explanation that matters? Meaning, didn’t the Granite Mountain Hotshots leave the safety zone because they thought they could do it and make it to the Boulder Springs Ranch without DYING?

    Wildland firefighters tend not to deliberately do things that would obviously result in death. So obviously the Granite Mountain Hotshots left where they were because they thought that they could make it in a timely fashion to the Boulder Springs Ranch without getting killed. But they didn’t.

    This means that either (a) something happened that slowed the crew down on the way there or (b) the fire and weather did not look as problematic to them from their vantage point as it did to those of us sitting safely at home or in the office almost two years later.

    So it seems to me that the question we should be asking is not “why did the Granite Mountain Hotshots leave the safety zone,” but, rather, “did something happen on the way to the BSR that slowed them down OR what was it about the fire and weather from their vantage point that made them think at some time after roughly 3:53 p.m. that they could make it in a timely fashion to the Boulder Springs Ranch”? We KNOW why they left the safety zone: They thought they could make it safely to the Boulder Springs Ranch. Now let us figure out why they thought that or why that initially correct belief ultimately became tragically incorrect…..

  9. Unfortunately, Granite Mountain HotShot family members are casting doubt on this story. Unfortunately, there is a conflict of interest when these same families are suing the State of Arizona over causation in wrongful death suits. I think the bottom-line is the same as it was prior to this information coming out. The decision by the team to leave the safe area is the direct cause of their deaths.

Comments are closed.