Two movies in development about fatal wildfires

Development is moving forward on two movies about wildfires on which multiple firefighters were killed.

In February, 2013 John N. Maclean announced that he had signed a deal to have his book about the 2006 Esperanza fire made into a movie. A screenplay is being written by Sean O’Keefe, and Jim Mickle, a well-regarded Indie director, has been signed to direct the project. Not too much is happening on it right now since Mr. Mickle is tied up making another movie.

But that could change since another wildfire film has been announced. Legendary Pictures, which bought the rights to Mr. Maclean’s book, may decide to move things along more quickly so that they can release it before a planned movie about the Yarnell Hill Fire hits theaters.

Below is an excerpt from a May 27, 2015 article in the Daily Courier:

A movie about Prescott’s fallen hotshot firefighters is still in the works, although some of the players have changed.

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura of “Transformers” fame is in the development stage for the movie, planning the elements of the film, his publicist Arnold Robinson of Rogers and Cowan said.

Ken Nolan, screenwriter of “Black Hawk Down,” currently is writing the script, Robinson added.

“There are no actors attached to the project at this time, but discussions with talent are taking place,” Robinson said. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart” and “Out of the Furnace”) is no longer planning to work on the hotshot film, his spokesperson Jennifer Hillman of Creative Artists Agency said.

Hopefully production on the hotshots movie will begin late this year or early next year, Robinson said. There is no timeframe for when the film will be in theaters…

Five wildland firefighters were killed on the 2006 Esperanza Fire, and 19 died on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

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Kyle Dickman: “Stop expecting firefighters to save your homes”

Kyle Dickman, a former wildland firefighter and author of a just released book about the Yarnell Hill Fire on which 19 firefighters were killed, has written an opinion piece for CNN titled Stop expecting firefighters to save your homes.

Below is an excerpt from the article on CNN:

…But asking firefighters to risk their lives to save unprepared homes from the most volatile blazes is like asking the National Guard to control a hurricane. It’s negligent. Even still, firefighters want to help people and put their training to use, and it can be hard for these brave men and women to recognize the limits of their abilities…
[…]
In the aftermath [of the Yarnell Hill Fire], some of the 127 homeowners who lost their houses during that blaze sued the State of Arizona for failing to protect the town. The judge threw out the lawsuit, and in doing so, gave active support to the rarely spoken truth that firefighters simply cannot stop the highest intensity fires. We’re witnessing that reality now more than ever…

Mr. Dickman’s book is titled On The Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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Father used phone app to track his son on Yarnell Hill Fire

In researching another story indirectly related to the deaths of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, Arizona, I ran across an interesting article about how a father tracked his son who was one of the 19.

Using a smart phone application called “Find My Friends”, Joe Woyjeck who works for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, could see the location of his son, Kevin Woyjeck, when he went on fires across the West with the Hotshot crew.

Below is an excerpt from the article at AZCentral, published June 28, 2014:

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“…In mid-June, Joe tracked his son as the Granite Mountain crew headed to Jemez Springs, N.M., for the Thompson Ridge fire. He knew when Kevin was done and headed back to Arizona. “I could track him on the road,” Joe said.

The Granite Mountain crew stayed around Prescott the next few weeks, fighting the Doce and West Spruce fires. Then, they were sent about 30 miles southeast to battle a fire initially sparked by a lightning strike on a hill.

On the morning of June 30, Joe Woyjeck was playing with his dog in the front yard of his Southern California home.

He clicked on his phone. An icon representing his son popped up on a map. The phone said he was somewhere outside the community of Yarnell.

Later on, Joe would regret that he didn’t save a screen shot of that map. But at that moment, he didn’t know he would have a reason to do so. He was just taking a peek, as the two always did.

It would be hours later that Joe’s phone would ring. It was his other son, Bobby. He had heard bad news from a friend of his, who was a firefighter in Arizona. Something bad had happened in Yarnell.

Joe made a call to the Prescott Fire Department. “I’m sure they were getting overwhelmed,” he said. He got through to a woman who told him she couldn’t say anything. Joe pressed her. “Was there a burn-over?” he asked. She said yes. Joe said that was all he needed to know.

Joe tried calling his son. But got no response.

He then tried the “Find My Friends” program. Nothing showed.

[…]

Sometime that evening, the fire chief and a fire captain from the Orange County Fire Authority came to the door. Joe didn’t know either man. But he knew what they were there to say.

He was in shock but said he was able to use his professional experience to temporarily distance himself from the situation. He opened the door and saw the two men in their dress uniforms.

He told them who he was and said, “Confirmed?”

One man said, “Confirmed.” Joe shook both men’s hands.

[…]

He read reports that said commanders were not sure where the Granite Mountain crew was. He thinks of that June 2013 morning and how he so easily could look at his phone and see his son’s location.

“It’s really hard for me to understand how they didn’t know where the crews were at,” he said, “when I’m playing with my dog on my front lawn and I know where my son is, all the way in Southern California.”

The Fire Department would later send Joe his son’s belongings, including the burned remnants of his phone.”

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Yarnell Hill Fire survivor to be deposed

Brendan McDonough

Brendan McDonough. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Republic is reporting that the only survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots will be questioned under oath later this month. This will be the first time that Brendan McDonough, who was serving as a lookout when the other 19 members of the crew were entrapped by fire and killed in 2013, will undergo a sworn deposition.

The testimony may provide more information about why the crew left the safety of a previously burned area on the Yarnell Hill Fire and walked through unburned brush where they were overrun by the fire. The deposition is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 28 at a Phoenix law office.

As we wrote on April 4, an article in the April 3 edition of the Arizona Republic included information that was previously unknown to the public. The publication reported that Mr. 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.

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Why don’t we record fireground radio transmissions?

The most significant unanswered question about the 19 fatalities on the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire is, why did the Granite Mountain Hotshots leave the safety of a previously burned area and walk through unburned brush toward a ranch. Undoubtedly some of the firefighters that were working on the fire heard radio transmissions during which the order to relocate was discussed, but due to lawyering-up and the refusal of the U.S. Forest Service to allow their firefighters to provide information, other firefighters may never know why or by whom that fateful decision was made.

It is possible that a simple device costing less than $200 could have recorded the fireground radio transmissions and this issue could have been settled within hours of the accident. And a lesson may have been learned, preventing other firefighters from making the same mistake.

Cockpit voice recorders in an aircraft capture conversations and radio transmissions, dash cameras in law enforcement vehicles record audio and video, and recently there have been recommendations that every police officer wear a body camera.

dash camera

An example of a dash camera.

One of the recommendations from investigators following the death of Dallas firefighter Stanley Wilson, and earlier than that, Dallas Lt. Todd Krodle, was that on-scene radio transmissions be recorded.

Firefighter Wilson’s widow, Jenny, said she had one simple wish: that fireground radio transmissions be recorded. After the Dallas FD balked at spending the money, FirefighterCloseCalls looked into recording devices. Here is an excerpt from their article:

…Stop the bullsh*t—a system that records repeated or simplex radio transmissions won’t break the City-or most any other jurisdiction. It can be done through a central location or battalion chief buggies can be equipped with them…simple fireground recorders. And you don’t even need to form a committee.

As an example, I searched and found www.FireVideo.net and for much less than $200.00 each, you can have a dash (or rear of command buggy) recorder with audio and video for every buggy-it can record over 10 hours and it automatically turns on.

So let’s just say the “big D” has 9 battalions and a few other senior chiefs/safety officers etc per shift. So, for about $2000.00 total, EVERY on-duty DFR buggy has a working, state of the art recorder. That’s less than it will cost to buy lunch at the next city council meeting. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. That was easy.

Either way, it’s 2015 and it’s ridiculous to not be able to go back and listen to fireground channels-after fires that went well or ones such as this one where Captain Wilson was tragically killed.

Look, if we can go on the Internet and watch Freddie firefighter with his helmet cam stretch a booster line to a raging mulch bed on fire, fireground channels can be recorded right at the buggy. It may cost some a little money, but that’s the price of putting a sign in front of a building and calling it the “FIRE DEPT”.

Recording fireground radio transmissions on a wildland fire is very different from recording those at a structure fire, but that does not mean it is impossible, or that we should throw up our hands and say it can’t be done. Low power direct transmissions from hand held radios do not travel much beyond line of sight, but if there were a few recording devices in vehicles scattered around a fire there is a chance that a key conversation could be recorded that might later lead toward a lesson learned.

It would not be a perfect system. Not every channel would be recorded, and some would be missed. But for less than $200 per Battalion Chief’s vehicle, a National Forest, a state agency, or a county fire department with a heavy wildland responsibility should experiment with a few devices.

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