Yarnell Hill Fire survivor gets book deal

Brendan McDonough

Brendan McDonough speaks at the memorial service for his 19 fellow crewmembers killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert, July 9, 2013.

The only survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ tragedy during the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona has signed a book deal with a best-selling author. Brendan McDonough was serving as a lookout when the other 19 members of his crew were entrapped by the fire and killed.

Publisher’s Marketplace provides this teaser about the book:

Firefighter Brendan McDonough with NYT bestselling author Stephan Talty. The untold story from the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the Arizona Republic:

A Prescott wildfire lookout who lived through the deadly Yarnell Hill blaze of 2013 signed a book deal at about the same time his sworn testimony was canceled based on concerns from his therapist that a deposition would jeopardize his treatment for post-traumatic stress.

Former Granite Mountain Hotshots member Brendan McDonough has been working with best-selling author Stephan Talty to produce a book that, according to online promotional materials, will reveal “the untold story from the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire.”

McDonough, who has retained a private attorney and an agent, barely escaped flames that killed 19 fellow hotshots June 30, 2013. Reached by phone Monday, he declined to explain why his treatment precluded sworn testimony but did not prevent participation in a book. He referred calls to his legal representative and his agent.

In an interview last week, Los Angeles-based agent Steve Fisher confirmed that a book is in the offing…

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Mesa Hotshots Prepare for Fire Season

Ryan Conray leads James Robbins along a ridge line trail during the run portion of the Mesa Hotshots Desert Assesment.

Ryan Conray leads James Robbins along a ridge line trail during the run portion of the Mesa Hotshots Desert Assesment.

Text and photos by Tom Story.

Crews in the Southwest Region (Arizona, New Mexico & a little bit of Texas) get ready early in the calendar year for the beginning of fire season, and the preparation of the Tonto National Forest’s Mesa Hotshot Crew northeast of Phoenix is typical.

The crew was formed in 1973 and was based on the Pleasant Valley District until the move down to the Sonoran desert of the Mesa Ranger District two seasons ago. When the hiring process was all over for this year Superintendent Pat Moore had 7 new hires, “the most I’ve ever had” he commented, to begin their third season on the desert.

The crew’s week long critical training period included the usual pack test, safety refresher, first aid and CPR training, equipment issue and lots of other details.

Jesus Lopez and Justine Bundy inventory their freshly issued equipment as the Mesa Hotshots began their critical training prior to the start of the season.

Jesus Lopez and Justine Bundy inventory their freshly issued equipment as the Mesa Hotshots began their critical training prior to the start of the season.

Since the crew moved to the desert, they have begun to build a new set of physical training traditions. One is called the “desert assessment”, a timed event at the Coon Bluff Recreation site just down the road from the crew’s base at the Goldfield Work Center. It consists of a 1.7 mile run with a 600-foot elevation gain (and loss) followed by tire pounding with a sledge hammer (10 times each side), 20 pushups, 50 total step ups, and 3 per side sandbag getups.

After four rotations of the exercises, participants don a 45-pound weight vest and hike the same route in reverse. The best time of the day recently was 54 minutes, 10 seconds.

Slower than the record, but this year running with the weight vests was not allowed. The idea was to see what shape they were in, while being careful to not cause injuries. The test combined pure aerobics, hiking, and work capacity with the various exercise motions typical of firefighting. Superintendent Moore said the assessment “ isn’t about checking fitness, it is about mental toughness”.

Corey Hall does pull ups as other members of the Mesa Hotshot watch and wait during the crews physical training test.

Corey Hall does pull ups as other members of the Mesa Hotshot watch and wait during the crews physical training test.

Field exercises and a camping shakedown were held both on the Payson and Pleasant Valley Ranger Districts on the Tonto National Forest. The site for their chain saw refresher, brushing along some overgrown fence lines by the Ranger station, was at their old home base in Young, AZ. The “final exam” held the following day was constructing about a mile of fireline in steep country to simulate a fire scenario. The crew returned to Mesa to finish up with some classroom work.

Roman Gerriets moves an armload of blackberry brambles as the Mesa Hotshots do some saw work along a fence line at the Pleasant Valley Ranger Station in Young, AZ. The crew combined their saw refresher with some needed project work on the district.

Roman Gerriets moves an armload of blackberry brambles as the Mesa Hotshots do some saw work along a fence line at the Pleasant Valley Ranger Station in Young, AZ. The crew combined their saw refresher with some needed project work on the district.

Joe Schoenemann keeps his chain sharp after refueling during a saw work refresher session at the Tonto National Forest's Pleasant Valley Ranger District in Young, AZ.

Joe Schoenemann keeps his chain sharp after refueling during a saw work refresher session at the Tonto National Forest’s Pleasant Valley Ranger District in Young, AZ.

The first day they were available, the 2015 fire season began for the Mesa Hotshots — they were sent to a fire on the east side of the Superstition Mountains on the edge of their home district.

A member of the Mesa Hotshots runs along a ridge line during the crews desert assessment session near the crews base along the Salt River, northeast of the Phoenix metro area.

A member of the Mesa Hotshots runs along a ridge line during the crews desert assessment session near the crews base along the Salt River, northeast of the Phoenix metro area.

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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 publication 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 Crews 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.

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BLM conducts prescribed fire in Hualapai Mountains

Prescribed fire Hualapai Mountains

Prescribed fire in the Hualapai Mountains. BLM photo.

This week Bureau of Land Management personnel conducted a prescribed fire in the Hualapai Mountains southeast of Kingman, Arizona in cooperation with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The purpose of the project was to treat approximately 1,250 acres of dense chaparral brush to improve mule deer habitat, reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires, and improve forage for wildlife and livestock.

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Two former BIA firefighters convicted of arson

Laguna Fire, 2011

Laguna Fire, 2011. BLM photo.

Wildfire Today has learned that two former Bureau of Indian Affairs wildland firefighters have been convicted of arson. In late February, 2015 Joshua Joseph Gilbert and Blase Anthony Smith pleaded guilty to felony charges of starting wildfires in southeast California and southwest Arizona in 2009 and 2011.

Both firefighters were charged with starting at least one fire north of Yuma, Arizona — the Centipede Fire on October 17, 2009 on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation (map).

Mr. Gilbert admitted helping to start another fire also, the May 18, 2011 Laguna Fire. With strong winds of 25-35 mph with gusts to 45 mph the fire burned through Betty’s Kitchen Wildlife and Interpretive Area (Betty’s Kitchen is a significant archaeological site which was recorded in the National Registry), Pratt Nursery, Mittry South Restoration Area, and into Mittry Lake Wildlife Area (map), totaling 751 acres. The firefighter lit the fire on the California side of the Colorado River but it jumped the river and spread into Arizona. Betty's Kitchen signThe fire then tracked north through the popular recreation sites at Laguna Dam and Mittry Lake. Several historical sites were damaged or destroyed and wildlife habitat was burned. On May 23, 2011 an early cost estimate for the suppression of the fire was $300,000.

Dennis Godfrey, a Public Affairs Officer with the Bureau of Land Management, said Mr. Smith was directly involved with illegally starting multiple fires on BLM, tribal, and state trust lands in Arizona and California between the years 2009 and 2012. It was determined that BIA and tribal firefighters at BIA’s Fort Yuma Agency in Arizona had either intentionally started fires on tribal or BLM administered public lands, or were paying Smith to start the fires. The firefighters were or had been Administratively Determined or AD firefighters, and worked only on an as-needed basis for the government, usually when there was an ongoing fire.

Extensive Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ESR) was required to restore 86 acres of habitat and recreation facilities that were damaged or destroyed in the fire. The BLM prepared an Environmental Assessment that analyzed the alternatives for restoration.

Between 2009 and 2012 there were an average of 31 fires a year in the Fort Yuma area. After the investigation began in 2012 the average number of fires per year dropped to five between 2013 and 2014.

Both firefighters pleaded guilty of violating Title 18, U.S.C. §1855, Timber Set Afire, a Class D Felony. The maximum penalty for the offense is a fine of $250,000 and/or 5 years in prison.

Mr. Gilbert was given five years’ supervised probation with six months’ home detention and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $40,624. The court’s justification for a sentence that was far below the maximum was based on their assessment that he admitted to his own criminal activity and provided agents with information regarding other individuals very early in the investigation. Most significantly, Mr. Gilbert provided information implicating Blase Smith.

Although Mr. Smith had already confessed, his statements were unreliable and Mr. Gilbert provided necessary corroboration which would have been essential if Smith went to trial. In addition, the court said, he is only 25 years old and appears to be the sole financial support for his wife and two children. He lost his job as a firefighter as a result of this crime and now owes a substantial amount of restitution, according to documents filed in court. The sentencing decision includes the following:

His criminal history consists of a series of misdemeanor offenses related to his alcohol abuse. The instant offense is relatively old and it appears that the defendant has mended his ways in many respects. Other than one arrest in April of 2014, Gilbert has not committed any crimes since 2011 and has complied fully with his release conditions. The recommended sentence will allow the defendant to receive appropriate treatment for his substance abuse issues, [and] will provide a just punishment for the offense.

The other firefighter, Mr. Blase Anthony Smith, was sentenced to 51 months in prison with credit for time already served. After his release he will be placed on supervised release for three years.

In addition, Mr. Smith was ordered to pay restitution of $3,813,983, “due immediately”, in order to repay several organizations for suppression of the Laguna Fire and the later restoration efforts.

The restitution is broken down as follows: $2,143,592.35 to the Bureau of Reclamation; $80,000 to Arizona Western College; $15,000 to Northern Arizona University; $1,396,925 to the Bureau of Land Management; $174,567 to the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and $3,898 to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the $3.8 million is not paid immediately as ordered, Mr. Smith will not be charged interest or penalties on any unpaid balances. After assessing his ability to write a check for $3.8 million, the court ordered him to pay $50 a month. At that rate the organizations will receive their full amounts after 76,282 years. While in prison, he will be required to pay $25 a month.

In May, 2011 a reward of $10,000 was offered by the BIA for information about the start of the Laguna fire which led to a conviction. BLM spokesperson Dennis Godfrey said someone had applied for the reward, but as far as he knew it had not yet been approved.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to provide any information about the fires or the firefighters.

Laguna fire briefing

A briefing on the Laguna Fire in 2011. BLM photo.

This employment status of the two firefighters in this article was corrected on March 9 after it was found that incorrect information had been provided. The two firefighters were or had been AD, and were not regular federal government employees.

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