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.”

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.