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.

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. Google+

47 thoughts on “Errors in a review of a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire”

  1. I have not read the book or the review, but I am familiar with The Wall Street Journal’s approach to reporting on western forests and western fires. They do not understand the issues and they do not commit resources to getting their facts right.

  2. The review credit refers to Yost as a “firefighter” (and he’s written for the WSJ for years), but I’d bet money he’s never been a wildland firefighter, which halfway explains his lazy attention to detail on the facts and terminology in his review.

    https://markyost.wordpress.com/about/

  3. Any attention paid to wildland fire in the mainstream media is generally a good thing, in my view. The facts that were wrong in the WSJ review seem not to be material. Meaning, does anyone really care what type of animals the Helms had, in terms of retelling the tragic story of the Yarnell Hill Fire? Forgive me for posing the question, but it seemed salient. I am surprised to see John Maclean criticizing another author or the reviewer of a book. Surely there are bigger fish to fry.

    1. I think the point is, that if they didn’t get simple facts correct, where else did they cut corners?

      1. Thanks for getting the point there C.Kirk … if a writer can’t get something as simple as “horse farm” correct, how am I to trust his viewpoint on 19 kids dying on a fire?

        And that’s a QUICK list there; there are numerous other problems with the book. Recent analysis of FOX NEWS (sic) reports shows more than half of the “facts” in their broadcasts are wrong. How’s a TV viewer supposed to guess which are correct and which are not?

        And … publishing fictionalized thoughts and quotes from dead firefighters in a book? I’m flat STUNNED that Ballantine Books published THAT.

      2. I agree with the good Capt. It’s all about the details.

        And I disgree with “Observer” regarding the relevance of the critique. All of those points brought out in the critique are germaine.

    2. Folks, Maclean and Holly Neill were commenting on a REVIEW of a book. Holly Neill and John Maclean were not reviewing the YHF book – they were reviewing a review of the book. So their nitpicking of the review seems a bit excessive.

      Unless perhaps you all think that now someone should do a review of Maclean’s and Neill’s review of the review of the YHF book? And then someone can review that………. 🙂

      1. @Observer: point taken. HOWEVER, if a professional writer with years of background in journalism and (at least a smattering of) firefighting background writes a review like this and comes away from the book with such a severe misunderstanding/misstatement of basic facts, what are other readers to think of the disaster after reading Dickman’s book? I get your point, but I think you might be picking up ants at the edge of the picnic here.

        As Holly has noted, it’s a matter of respect for the nineteen who died on the fire. Sometimes accuracy matters more than it does.

      2. The review of a review is understood. You have probably flushed out an important point here. After reading the post it should be made clear that my issue is with the WSJ article. I have not been a subscriber since my college dazes (about 100 years ago) but I will be seeking out this issue later today if it is still available at our bookstore.

    3. Hello Observer,
      Official and unofficial accounts of the Yarnell Hill Fire have been plagued with inaccuracies, misinterpretations, misrepresentations, omissions and embellishments from the first days after the fire to the present. Lawsuits and investigations are ongoing. Important questions remain unanswered and key witnesses remain silent. Facts matter; accuracy counts. They matter out of respect for the nineteen men who lost their lives in the fire. They matter because living people are involved: it may not make a difference to you or very many other people, whether the Helms run a horse farm or not, but it matters to the Helms, because they know they do not. Nearly two years after the fire, details should become more vivid and true, not more muddled and misrepresented.

        1. Bob, I think your father would have been very proud of your determination and persistence in trying to find answers to the many questions about the Yarnell Hill Fire. I think of him often as an example of generosity of spirit and courage, and I remember with gratitude the way you helped me with the Rattlesnake Fire story.

          1. Thanks I wish the information on Yarnell Hill was a lot easer to come by there is just so much missing or misleading I have stuck with it because it touched a nerve in many ways. The Memorial was on July 9 as you know my dad died on July 9, 1953.
            Also no look out posted, Unburned fuel between the fire and crew. Things that are in the 10 and 18.

  4. Misinformed, irresponsible, or lazy, I have no respect for writers like this. One would think that someone writing for the WSJ would understand the repercussions of publishing information that is not accurate. It would seem the WSJ could find a SME to write about this, or at least question whether or not this author is knowledgeable enough to provide a quality review.

  5. I was able to read the entire review by going to news.google.com then typing in “wall street journal yarnell” in the search bar and clicking on the appropriate link in the search results.

    Hope that helps.

  6. My only question is how many of the inaccuracies pointed out in the rebuttal by Maclean and Neill (and maybe others not rebutted) are Mr. Yost’s and how many are the author’s? The review is rather confusing because Yost shifts back and forth between actual quotes and what appear to be paraphrases as if he is summarizing the book content. Regardless, it’s a rather poorly written review that just seems to summarize the content without actually expressing any opinion or critique of it.

    1. The errors pointed out above are all Yost’s. I have read the book but fall short of an exact memory, but can tell you that Yost either didn’t read the entire book or read it quickly, formed his own interpretation, and wrote a lackluster “review”.
      Some Yost errors, like “In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late.” are completely made up – Dickman, in the book, page 242, specifically states the time frame – “it was after 6pm, almost an hour and a half after GM had deployed” when EMT Eric Tarr was still flying trying to locate the deployment site, when he spotted the ranch.

      1. Thanks Eric. It really was not clear from the review. That clarifies my perspective that Yost’s review is not just poor, but negligently incompetent.

        Maclean and Neill were kind. Were I the author, or publisher, the WSJ would be receiving a scathing rebuttal and demand for retraction of Yost’s review.

  7. If you read the Book you will find a whole lot of inaccuracies and adlibbing the thoughts of the GM crew. It is a poor excuse for accuracy of what happened and who the people really were. More fiction than fact. Hopefully a better review will come out detailing facts that are accurate. Dickman did a poor job of sticking to the facts for all of his supposed research never reviewing people who he stated in the book he talked to. The story is still not complete until McDonough is Deposed on record for the courts.

    1. I’m old enough to remember when the readers of the WSJ demanded factual reporting, now it seems even this formerly respected news agency is driven by ideology.

      1. The two paragraphs of Yost’s review that start “For decades, Dickman reminds us, the US Forest Service…” are politically driven and erroneous (actually somewhat falsified as Dickman does not make such statements in the book but Yost makes it seem as though he did).

        1. @Erik, see my post below.
          Dickman did indeed write the first part.

          I have it on a Kindle Fire, with searchable text. 🙂

  8. This wouldn’t be the first time someone rushed to get the first book out and cobbled a bunch of garbage together to make money.

    1. This is a review of a “review”, not a look at the book…and I use the term “review” lightly when it comes to Yost’s article.
      I wouldn’t say the book is garbage. Is it perfect? None are. It is geared to a wider crowd then actual firefighters, so take it all with a grain of salt. There is a lot of speculation and story building in the first 2/3 of the book giving people an idea of the players and life on a fire crew. The “meat” of the story follows much of what we learned in the unfolding stories.

  9. In discussing the “Yarnell assignment” Yost and/or Dickman may have been referencing a resource order to have been filled in part by GMH rather than the initial ignition and initial sort-of attack. So perhaps that criticism needs to be rephrased.

    1. @Pat,
      That’s one of the biggest problems with Dickman’s writing — he’s all over the place and it’s often hard to tell WHAT he’s talking about. The errors (even the little ones) could/should have been fixed by an editor. On one page he’s got an airtanker low overhead for a drop — and he calls it a prop plane — and then notes that the treetops were bent in the rotor wash. And then the airtanker dropped the retardant in a line perpendicular to the fire’s spread.

  10. The WSJ piece has the most extraordinary statement:

    “For decades, Mr. Dickman reminds us, the U.S. Forest Service and the logging industry worked together to keep most fires manageable. “Fires burned at low intensity, with flames not much taller than knee height,” he writes. “These blazes meandered across the landscape, clearing the forest of underbrush every ten to fifteen years.”
    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….”
    I was around in the 70’s and 80’s, right in the middle of fuel treatment efforts in the northwest. The above statement is deliberately disingenuous and wildly inaccurate. This is classic WSJ nonsense. The reason you cant really tell if it is Yost or Dickman saying it is because nobody would want to own such nonsense. This is how WSJ rolls.

    1. Well said. There is a common misconception with respect to the general public’s understanding of this issue. The WSJ, Fox News, and corporate media in general are increasingly misleading the public on so many issues. Even NPR (National Petroleum Radio) is joining in. Not by what they report, but what they don’t report.

  11. The first part starting with “Fires burned at” and ending in “fifteen years” is verbatim from the book. The two sentences after that are Yost’s and are not in the book.

    1. That’s exactly the point Kelly. Yost interspersed snippets from the book into his own narrative to lend support to opinions the original author apparently did not express. Yost’s article is effectively an op ed piece, not a book review, that misuses quotes from the book to try to support his own opinions. Shameful.

      1. Hey Kevin,
        YES.
        I’m working on my own book review, separate from Maclean’s, and I don’t even know Holly. I had a little epiphany today; if you ignore the author’s and publisher’s claims that the book’s about the Yarnell disaster, it’s not an awful book. Got its problems, yes, but it’s not awful — many parts of it are actually quite good (despite really sloppy editing). But it is most assuredly NOT a story about Yarnell Hill, or even close.

    2. Agreed, Dickman wrote part of what Yost claims. The egregious part was Yost’s insertion of the cause – environmentalists. Yost took Dickman’ quotes and added his own, incorrect political spin.

  12. Many of the comments here illustrate why facts matter: a lot of people care a great deal about what happened on the Yarnell Hill Fire. If an author makes an error and a reviewer adds additional errors or reconfirms the author’s original error, and nobody responds, the reading public is led further and further from truth or reliable conjecture. A review in a respected source like the Wall Street Journal has a long reach.

    A couple of the errors we identified in Yost’s book review can be traced back to Dickman’s book, and several are Yost’s alone.

    It is worth noting again that John Maclean will address the book itself in a review for the Journal of Forestry, but it won’t be out for several months.

    Thank you, Bill Gabbert, for facilitating this dialog and debate!

  13. Well , this comment might come pretty late in the game people, but I’m the father and the uncle of 2 of the members in that crew of 19 heros. I’m Grant Quinn Mckee’s dad……Grant Scott McKee. It has taken me along time to finish the book(at2-3 pages a day), because it’s that painful. I was never contacted by Mr. Dickman . I had no knowledge he was writing such a book, and as most people can see, he used my son as the focal point in the story line. The first 2 words in the book , chapter1, is my son and my name. The story should have had more about ALL 20 guys in the crew, and he definitely took liberties on the events of the history of my sons life. My son was NEVER a latch key kis and that was quit offensive. Furthermore, May 18th was his birthday , so he was only 21 years old for less than 6 weeks at the time of the accident. Mr. Dock man stated that my son work as a busboy/ waiter before taking on the new job as a Hotshot, as well as was a bartender. My son was not yet old enough to make drinks and he knew obsolete lay nothing about being a bartender. That’s just a few things, as there are many more details that are not factual. One would think that if a person is going to write about someuone’s child, that they would take the time to ask the people who raised him. My sons life was not hard for him growing up as he portrayed it to be. He had a few moments that were difficult, but nothing out of the ordinary for most children in today’s world. He was well taken care of and loved. And he was well aware of how much he was loved. He never wanted for anything. Lastly …. I will add that it’s pretty much a no class move that he never even sent a copy to the families he wrote about
    . I guess that says a lot about his compassion and appreciation for making a living on this tragityand disrespecting the families by add lobbing on his facts. There is a word for that… A few words come to mind….. Cheap , selfish, and stupid. Dope should be more careful about what they say and write, cause once in awhile , they are the chance of offending the wrong type of people who are not so friendly under these conditions. You know what I’m sayin? Thanks to all that took the time to read this novel. I do apologize.

    1. Some still respect your son’s service and sacrifice and still hope some lessons from Yarnell will be learned and heeded. We can only hope to reduce the number of families suffering in the future. I am sorry that reckless writing hurt your family again, Mr. McKee.

  14. I just came across this discussion today. Not knowing whether anyone else will read it doesn’t stop me from wanting to leave a couple of comments.
    Re: Halt/reduction in controlled burning on National Forest lands. The budget reductions to the USDA Forest Service each year from 1980 to 1988 were primary reasons for curtailing prescribed fire work. I left the fuels management position (GS-462) on the LPF SBRD and went to work as a dispatcher in 1980.
    Re Yarnell fire behavior and weather: The RAWS data for the nearest station to the Yarnell was available for anyone to view online on the day of the fatalities and afterward. The RAWS date for the prior days was also posted online. I hope that that data has been reviewed by everyone who writes about the incident. Four WX parameters stand out; Wind speed, wind direction, temperature and solar radiation. The changes in those four changed in the same pattern each of the two days before and on the day of the fatality incident. I didn’t copy and save the charts but they were so significant I remember them very well. Each afternoon at roughly the same time each day the wind shifted almost 180 degrees and increased in speed. Shortly after that the solar radiation measured by the RAWS dropped abruptly. It seems very likely to me that the RAWS was located where the smoke column from the fire shifted in the afternoon to obscure the panel – causing the reduction in solar radiation recorded by the instruments. Given two previous days of shifts in rate of spread and direction of fire spread at the same period of the afternoon every firefighter should have been aware of the dangers on the day of the fatalities. I’m terrifically saddened by the tragic loss of firefighters lives – especially in a situation that I feel was so completely unnecessary and preventable.

  15. Oh good, all of my concerns/complaints have mostly been answered. Thank you! I made it to chapter two, and ceased. Way too many errors/facts/terminology (no, not lingo) to list. So I won’t, as they have been well represented in the other posts on here. Did Mr. Dickman spend all FIVE (golden year of WFF’s that know it all) of his wildland fire on Tahoe IHC? If so, I would assume that he would know that the facts are crucial! Yet, he didn’t, and that makes me sad for him. This is a huge story, one that an experienced author should pursue…..hint>Maclean’s.

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