Errors in a review of a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The article below was written by John N. Maclean and Holly Neill.

****

The Wall Street Journal and Fire

By John Maclean and Holly Neill

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, about hotshot culture and the Yarnell Hill Fire, has been reviewed in the Saturday, May 23, edition of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Yost, who is identified as a firefighter and paramedic from Highwood, Illinois. The review makes a number of errors and misleading assertions about fire policy and the Yarnell Hill Fire independent of the material in Dickman’s book. Journal reviews receive respectful attention, but the review is wrong on so many points that it should be answered in a timely fashion–Maclean is preparing a review of Dickman’s book for the Journal of Forestry, but that won’t appear for several months.

Yost writes: “The policy of letting low burns do their work was in place until the 1980s, when environmentalists began lobbying for letting underbrush and tracts of forest go uncut, unmanaged and uncleared by small fires. The result was denser forests and forest beds of virtual kindling.”

Response: As every student of wildfire knows, after the Big Burn of 1910 the Forest Service developed a policy, in force for many decades, to put out all fires by 10 AM the morning after they were spotted.

Yost writes: “The Yarnell assignment came on a Sunday, normally a day off for the crew. The fire, started by lightning the day before…”

Response: The fire was started Friday, June 28, 2013, two days before the fatalities occurred on Sunday.

Yost writes: “When the Granite Mountain crew arrived, the flames were closing in on the small town of Yarnell.”

Response: When the Granite Mountain crew arrived on Sunday morning, the flames, which were far from Yarnell, were headed north and away from the town, toward Peeples Valley.

Yost writes that the lookout, Brendan McDonough, was in his fourth season.

Response: McDonough was in the beginning of his third season.

Yost writes that when the fire turned toward Yarnell, in the afternoon, McDonough “was no longer in a position to see what was going on and warn his crewmates.”

Response: McDonough reported to Jesse Steed, acting Granite Mountain Superintendent (normally assistant superintendent) that he could see that the fire had reached his trigger point and he was departing, which he did. At that point, photo and other evidence proves that Steed and the other hotshots could see exactly what the fire was doing.

Yost writes that Eric Marsh, (normally the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots), was “attached to the command staff on the day of the Yarnell fire, he was at first stationed in a makeshift outpost along a highway.”

Response: Marsh was never stationed at a makeshift outpost. He led the crew to the fire by scouting ahead and flagging an upward route. As far as being “attached to the command staff,” Marsh was made division Alpha supervisor and performed that duty in the field.

Yost writes: “The Granite Mountain crew had left the black and were working on the side of a hill, a dangerous position, Mr. Dickman explains, because it put them in danger of the fire coming down on top of them.

Response: The hotshots were digging direct handline, with one foot in the black, on the side of the hill. There was risk of the fire coming up to them from below, not coming down on top of them from the black above.

Yost writes: “Some investigators have speculated that, when the wind reversed, sending flames speeding toward the firefighters, they made a desperate attempt to get to a nearby horse farm and just didn’t make it.”

Response: No serious investigator has made that charge. It is agreed, and supported by photo and recorded radio exchanges as well as interview accounts, that the hotshots deliberately left their position and headed toward the ranch, which was identified as a safety zone. The ranch is not a horse farm: it is owned by Lee and DJ Helm who keep pets, including miniature horses, donkeys and shelter animals.

Yost writes about the fatalities, “In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late.”

Response: Firefighters work as crews, not as teams. It took an hour and 43 minutes, or 103 minutes, from the time Eric Marsh said over the radio that the crew was deploying until a medic reached the deployment site, according to official investigation records.

****

The book review in the Wall Street Journal can be seen HERE, but you generally have to be a paid subscriber to view it. However, mobile phone users can sometimes read it without a subscription.

John N. Maclean has written several books about wildland fire, including “Fire on the Mountain”, “Fire and Ashes”, and “The Thirtymile Fire”. His most recent book, “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57”, is slated to be made into a movie. Currently he is working on a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Last survivor of Mann Gulch Fire dies

Mann Gulch Fire
Investigators on the Mann Gulch Fire looking south from Foreman Dodge’s escape fire.

The last of the three firefighters who survived the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire died Monday. Robert Sallee passed away from complications following open heart surgery.

Mr. Sallee was 17 when he parachuted into the Helena National Forest (map) above the fire along with 14 other smokejumpers from Hale Field in Missoula, Montana. As the crew worked their way toward the bottom of the fire at the Missouri River, the winds changed causing the fire below them to blow up and begin moving in their direction. As the crew retreated up the steep slope, Foreman Wagner Dodge lit an escape fire in the light fuels and told the rest of the crew to join him in the burned area, but none of them did. Mr. Sallee and another crewman, Walter B. Rumsey, took a different route than the other smokejumpers, squirming their way through a narrow crevice in a rim rock, finding much better conditions in a rock scree on the other side of the ridge. Foreman Dodge, when the main fire caught up with his escape fire, eventually followed the other two where the three of them had to keep moving around in the rock scree as the fire burned around them. The blowup burned about 3,000 acres, claiming the lives of 12 of the smokejumpers and one former smokejumper who had been fighting the fire for 4 hours before the jumpers arrived.

Foreman Dodge died five years later from Hodgkin’s disease, and Mr. Rumsey died in an airplane crash in 1980.

Norman Maclean wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about the smokejumpers and their demise in Mann Gulch. His son, John N. Maclean helped to edit and make some of the finishing touches on the book which was published in 1992, two years after his father’s death. John said that Mr. Sallee became a companion for Norman while he was collecting information for the book, and in later years was very generous in telling his story about the fire. John said Mr. Sallee had abundant social skills and “was almost courtly in his personal manner”. John later wrote Fire on the Mountain about the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado.

About eight years after the Mann Gulch fire the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders”  were developed and incorporated into firefighter training.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Hazen and Jaeger Valley Funeral Home in Spokane, Washington.

 

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jay, Dave, Steve, Chris, and Shaun.

Wildfire briefing, March 30, 2014

Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas
Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas, March 29, 2014. Photo by Eric Ward.

Prescribed fire smoke in the Flint Hills

In light of the discussion on Wildfire Today about prescribed fire as a tourist attraction in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Eric Ward sent us the above photo that he took Saturday afternoon in smoky Manhattan, Kansas. He explained that many of the ranchers in the area conduct extensive burning projects this time of the year in order to enhance weight gains of cattle if they plan to stock pastures in May. On days when the relative humidity and wind speed are within an acceptable range, the evidence of the burning is very visible in the atmosphere, especially if weather for the previous week or so has been bouncing between snow and red flag weather conditions, as it has this year.

Colorado report recommends contracting for air tankers and helicopters

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsA long-awaited report about aerial firefighting by state agencies in Colorado was released Friday by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC). Some of the more significant recommendations include:

  • Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
  • Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
  • Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.

More details are at Fire Aviation.

Arizona seeks to immunize the state from liability from wildfires

A bill that was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee, House Bill 2343, would exempt the state and state employees from prosecution for harm resulting from the action, or inaction by state employees on state lands. Hundreds of millions of dollars in claims have been filed by the families of the 19 firefighters killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire and by property owners whose homes burned. The fire was managed by the state of Arizona in June, 2013.

Firefighters assisting with Oso landslide

Personnel that usually can be found at wildfires are helping to manage the response to the tragic landslide at Oso, Washington. We have reports that some of the resources assisting include Washington Incident Management Team #4 (a Type 2 team), miscellaneous overhead, and some Washington Department of Natural Resources chain saw teams. The IMTeam was dispatched on March 27.

New topic from “Safety Matters”

The “Safety Matters” group has released their “Topic #5”, and they are seeking input from wildland firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of South Canyon and the 38th Anniversary of Battlement Creek. Both fires fit the model of firefighters dying in a brush fuel type, on a slope, during hot and dry conditions.

The loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots indicates that a significant accident occurs every 18 to 20 years. Is there a reoccurring cycle, and if so why? Could it be related to a cyclic turnover of firefighter culture, training and attitude? What are the thoughts of Safety Matters readers?

Bushfire season ends in New South Wales

The bushfire season has reached its official end in New South Wales.

Tribute to author Norman Maclean

The Daily Beast has reprinted an excellent essay that Pete Dexter wrote for Esquire in 1981 about Norman Maclean. It explores a side of of the author that is not revealed in his book about firefighters, Young Men and Fire. Mr. Dexter spent quite a bit of time with Mr. Maclean, who at that time was writing the final chapter. Mr. Maclean also wrote A River Runs Through It, which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The Esperanza Fire, a book written by his son John N. Maclean, is working its way towards becoming a movie.

U.S. National Guard assists with fire in Puerto Rico

From the AP:

Puerto Rico has enlisted the U.S. National Guard to help extinguish a fire that has ravaged a forest in the island’s central region. Firefighting Chief Angel Crespo says that about 40 percent of the Modelo Forest in the town of Adjuntas has been destroyed. Authorities say they believe the fire was intentionally set and that it has consumed up to 290 acres (117 hectares). A U.S. National Guard helicopter helped dump water over the area on Friday.

Fantastic photo

Update from John Maclean about Yarnell Hill Fire

John N. Maclean and Holly Neill sent us some updated information about their quest to ferret out details about what happened on the Yarnell Hill Fire the day 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed outside of Yarnell, Arizona, June 30, 2013. The text below builds on their previous information that we published here and here.

****

“The discussion about what actually was said by members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and others in the final minutes before the fatalities on the Yarnell Hill Fire has sometimes been instructive. But the online discussion is missing the larger picture.

The radio transmissions uncovered in the background by Holly Neill conclusively show that the hotshots were communicating extensively, and not just among themselves, during the critical period from just after 1600 hours until the end. There was no substantial gap in communications, one of the several allegations used in effect to discredit the decision making and actions of the hotshots, and in particular of their superintendent, Eric Marsh. On the contrary, Marsh’s voice can be heard — and has been authenticated by those who knew him — making several radio transmissions during the crucial time. Perhaps the person or persons to whom Marsh was speaking in several of those transmissions could come forward: there is no mention of these conversations in any of the interviews with participants.

What the background communications do not show, at least not so far, is any formal communication by Marsh or anyone else explaining why the hotshots left the ridge and headed down into what became known as deployment valley. The background transmissions also do not disclose, at least so far, any direct order to the hotshots to go down to Yarnell and engage in structure protection.

Put in context, however, the background transmissions add a great deal to the picture of what happened, and what likely happened, during those final minutes. Obsessing about a single word, “house,” is appropriate up to a point. That’s the word Holly and I and many others hear in that one of several conversations we disclosed; it is not the word everyone hears. It would be best, perhaps, if investigators for the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, who are well alerted to the background communications, could have the recordings analyzed by some outside audio expert and themselves make a report. Meanwhile, a consideration of those transmissions should not be restricted to the credibility of one word, with everything hanging on that, but rather should look at what all the communications say about what happened, because they add new, contrary, and vital information to the picture of those events.”

Sources for the Neill/Maclean Yarnell Hill Fire analysis

Holly Neill and John N. Maclean compiled and sent to us the detailed information about the Yarnell Hill Fire videos in which they found the radio conversations that they referenced in their analysis that we published January 19. In the videos, fragments of radio conversations can be heard from nearby radios as various people shot the videos. The words are difficult to decipher, as they just happened to be in the range of the video camera’s microphone, in the background, but they were not specifically planned to be recorded.

The videos were shot at the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013 near Yarnell, Arizona. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew were entrapped and killed on the fire. These recordings, along with other investigatory data, may shed a little light on the circumstances surrounding that tragic event.

Information regarding how Holly and John developed their analysis is in another article, The Yarnell Hill Fire recordings — the back story.

As we promised on January 20, we are providing information about the sources of the data below. As far as we know, the first one is not in a public location on the internet, but many people have the Freedom of Information Act files, so perhaps soon it also will be available to everyone, if it is not already. We discovered today that Items 2 through 4 were uploaded to YouTube by Elizabeth Nowicki between January 1 and January 20 and are embedded below. We thank Ms. Nowicki for posting the files.

1. “DivA-Ops Musser”:

SAIT Investigation Record:AO5-20130630: AerialFirefightingStudyPhotosVideos F: PhotosAndVideos: Panebaker:Video:20130630_154232_fire_behavior_EP.MOV

2. “Marsh talking to Abel about making his way off the top”:

SAIT Investigation Record: F: PhotosAndVideos:A2520130630RobertCaldwellVideos:RobertCaldwell_IMG_0749_2389

*This video was posted by EN on You Tube on Jan 1, 2014.

3. “Marsh at house”:

SAIT Investigation Record:AO5-20130630: AerialFirefightingStudyPhotosVideos F:PhotosAndVideos: Panebaker:Videos:20130630_161620_VLAT_SPLIT_1_EP_MOV

*This video was posted by EN on You Tube @1700 on 1-20-14.

4. “Coming from the heel of the fire”:

SAIT Investigation Record: F: PhotosAndVideos:AO8-20130630BlueRidgeHotshotPhotosVideos: Yarnell_Gamble

*This video was posted by EN on You Tube on Jan 2, 2014.

The Yarnell Hill Fire recordings — the back story

The article below by Holly Neill and John N. Maclean provides the background story of how they developed the information that we reported January 19 about the Yarnell Hill Fire and the location of Eric Marsh. The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, 19 wildland firefighters, became entrapped and were killed while fighting the fire near Yarnell, Arizona on June 30, 2013.

While Holly and John are not equipped to upload and store huge video files online, others are doing so. Tomorrow, we will provide on Wildfire Today the video file names and folder locations in the Serious Accident Investigation Team record where the videos we refer to are located.

(UPDATE, January 21: today we published an article containing information about sources of Holly and John’s information: Sources for the Neill/Maclean Yarnell Hill Fire analysis )

****

A Note About the Accuracy of the Marsh Tapes

By Holly Neill and John N. Maclean

Our story about the previously undisclosed radio transmissions by Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, has caused a surge of interest on this site and elsewhere. Out of respect for the seriousness of most of that interest, here is a short account of how the transmissions were found and what attempts were made to verify them before we published them on the Wildfiretoday.com site.

Holly Neill made a public records request through the Arizona State Forestry Department on October 31; this was a specific request for the Aerial Retardant Study Videos that were filmed during the Yarnell Hill Fire. Holly thought that these audio-visual records, documenting the use aerial retardant on the fire, might reveal important information – if only by recording background conversations. She received these records, which are voluminous, on December 16. (Holly and John also requested and received the broader data package, the material from the Serious Accident Investigation Report, which includes the retardant study and much other material.)

Within a few days, she discovered the most significant transmission that we’ve reported, in which Marsh says he is at “the house where we’re going to jump out at.” The remaining audio conversations were transcribed and put together in a timeline from 1542 hrs to 1630 hrs.

Holly then took the “house we’re going to jump out at” recording to a professional audio company, who cleaned the audio file, and then cleaned it again with an audio program. The quotes can be heard without this treatment, but they are clearer after treatment. Holly’s husband Wayne and John both listened to the transmission and agreed on what was heard, which was reproduced in yesterday’s story. Outsiders, with a professional interest in the fire, also listened and did not dispute the transcript.

We then faced a decision about what to do next.

Holly wanted to pass along the material to the Granite Mountain Hotshot families before it went to anyone else. She did so on December 21, to the one family with whom she has direct contact.

On January 6 Holly provided the audio information to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health and their investigators, Wildland Fire Associates. The state agency is conducting further studies, which will take time.

We waited a while longer, but ultimately decided that the findings, which come from public documents, should be made public.

This may seem like, and is, a convoluted explanation. But the interest level in this story is high and questions have been raised about our methodology. We used public documents, took our time, and did our own work.