Smoke Screen

Forest Service ignored information from hotshot leaders about Granite Mountain’s history of bad decisions

The Yarnell Hill fire investigation conducted by the U.S. Forest Service deliberately ignored information provided by a former hotshot superintendent that the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots had a documented history of making bad decisions in violation of basic wildfire safety rules, federal records and interviews reveal.

A second former hotshot superintendent also contacted the Forest Service investigation leader, Mike Dudley, and reported that his conversations with Yarnell Hill wildfire supervisors immediately after the fire pointed to human error by the crew's leaders as the only plausible explanation for what happen.

The communications are among 2,400 pages of records obtained by InvestigativeMEDIA from a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request. The records were released earlier this year and are heavily redacted even though the investigation was completed in September 2013.

Granite Mountain Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh's decision-making was called into question by men who had directly worked with Marsh, or were aware of his reputation with other hotshot superintendents, in the weeks following the June 30, 2013, tragedy when Marsh and 18 members of his crew were overrun by fire.

Rather than contacting the hotshot superintendents to gather more information to determine what might be relevant to the Yarnell investigation, Forest Service investigators never replied to their emails that raised questions about Marsh's competence.

Instead, senior Forest Service personnel derisively dismissed the emails and warned others who were copied that questions about Marsh's leadership "tend to lead to a place they should not go."

Following up on Marsh's history of questionable decision-making could have provided insight into what remains today the fundamental unanswered question about the single largest loss of life of an interagency hotshot crew:

Why did Granite Mountain leave a burned-over, safe zone on top of the Weaver Mountains and descend into a box canyon packed with chaparral at the hottest time of day, without a lookout, with a rapidly moving wildfire approaching and a thunderstorm bearing down?

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The Forest Service investigation concluded that nobody did anything wrong and that all actions taken by Yarnell wildfire supervisors and the Granite Mountain crew were reasonable and appropriate.

Other information that has surfaced since the report's release indicates that Marsh ordered the crew to move from its mountaintop safety zone and head to a ranch house in the valley that was considered a safety zone because there was cleared vegetation around its perimeter.

Moving to the Boulder Springs Ranch would have put the crew in position to re-engage the fire that was sweeping through Yarnell and forcing mass evacuations of elderly people. The crew was about 600 yards west of the ranch when it was overrun by 2,000-degree flames.

The Arizona Forestry Division contracted with the Forest Service to conduct the Yarnell Hill fire investigation, which was ignited by lightning on state trust land on June 28, 2013. The forestry division released the Serious Accident Investigative Report in September 2013.

The investigation's conclusion stands in sharp contrast to the assessment by other hotshot superintendents.

"These (Granite Mountain Hotshot) guys really messed up and paid for it with their lives," retired Payson Hotshot Superintendent Fred Schoeffler wrote Dudley in a July 27, 2013, email. Schoeffler led the Payson crew for 26 years, the longest serving hotshot superintendent in history.

In his email, Schoeffler told Dudley that he had talked with the senior Yarnell Hill fire commanders and had been to the fatality site located at the base of the Weaver Mountains west of the small retirement community of Yarnell.

"This was absolutely a tragedy, no doubt—however it was one that was clearly avoidable," Schoeffler writes. "I come to no other conclusion that (the deaths were caused by) Human Factors and human error on all this...but it's hard to make heroes out of those who messed up fatally."

Schoeffler's email raised concerns that the structural firefighting philosophy focused on putting out fires and saving structures is creating dangerous situations in fighting wildfires and that Yarnell Hill is a tragic example. Wildfire crews typically construct firebreaks to encircle a wildfire and allow it to burn out.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots was the only hotshot crew in the country that was part of a structural fire department, in this case, the Prescott Fire Department. The structural firefighting mentality "is dangerously seeping into the wildland realm and needs to be stopped," Schoeffler warned.

A few days later, Dudley received another email about the actions taken by the Granite Mountain crew and Marsh.

On Aug. 5, 2013, former Geronimo Hotshot Superintendent Dave Provencio sent Dudley an email raising concerns about Marsh's decisions on previous fires. The Geronimo Hotshots are based on San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation east of Phoenix and frequently worked with Granite Mountain on fires.

"As you may know there are many of us Hotshots, past and present IHC superintendents that are not very happy with the decisions made at Yarnell Hill," Provencio wrote.

"Yarnell Hill, although tragic, does not come as a surprise to me and many of us. To me this was just part of a trend that ended with this tragedy," Provencio stated.

Provencio told Dudley that he had worked directly with Marsh on several assignments between 2010 and 2012 when he was the Geronimo superintendent and that Marsh had made recommendations to do work that was dangerous and there was no choice but to turn down his requests.

"If you would like to discuss those particular assignments, I have them well documented in writing, and in my mind," Provencio wrote.

Moments later, Dudley forwarded Provencio's email to other members of the investigation team including Steve Holdsambeck, the Forest Service's firefighting safety program manager.

Dudley, however, didn't forward Provencio's email to Brad Mayhew, a member of the investigation team who was in charge of considering what role human factors played in the Yarnell fire catastrophe.

Holdsambeck, meanwhile, quickly responded by issuing a warning.

"Obviously you need to be careful how you respond to this," Holdsambeck's email states. "My advice would be somewhere between these two options:"

The options, however, are unknown because the Forest Service redacted the information from the email.

Another Forest Service official responded a few minutes later to Holdsambeck's warning stating that Provencio's comments "tend to lead toward a place he should not go."

Provencio sent a second Aug. 5 email to Dudley providing more details on an assignment Marsh recommended to other hotshot crews that was turned down because it violated basic wildfire safety rules and was an example of "poor decision making."

"I'm alive and my people are alive to tell you my story," Provencio wrote. "I don't agree that they are heroes..."

The next day, Aug. 6, 2013, Dudley made it clear to two other Forest Service officials playing a key role in the Yarnell investigation that he was not going to contact Provencio for more information.

"I'll let you decide if either of you want to talk to him," Dudley wrote. "I'm not."

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No one from the Forest Service investigation team ever contacted Provencio. If they had, they would have heard an account that would have been very difficult to dismiss.

In an interview with InvestigativeMEDIA, Provencio provided details of a situation on the Horseshoe 2 Fire on the Coronado National Forest in southern Arizona in 2011 where Marsh was a division supervisor and made a recommendation for work that was rejected by four hotshot superintendents. (Marsh was a division supervisor at the Yarnell Hill fire where he oversaw Granite Mountain, which was under the command of his assistant, Jesse Steed.)

"Marsh's expectation was we can get this done in a short amount of time," Provencio said. But Provencio and the other hotshot superintendents thought otherwise.

"There was just too much against us. The steep slopes, the weather, there was no safety zone, no escape routes," Provencio said. "All the ducks were lining for a bad day, a bad week."

The superintendents, Provencio said, all agreed that Marsh's plan would likely end up with the hotshot crews being forced to "hurry" off the mountain. Being in a hurry, Provencio said, is something that hotshot crews never want to encounter.

"We said no, we don't want any part of this," Provencio said.

Marsh, Provencio said, was "pissed off" that his fire plan recommendation was turned down.

"He basically didn't talk to us after that," Provencio said.

Marsh, Provencio said, had quickly developed a reputation for pushing his crew to outperform other hotshot crews. By 2009, other hotshot crew superintendents began derisively referring to Marsh as "One Up" because of his attitude.

"His mentality was that when you came into a situation, a fire, an assignment...we are going to one up" any other crew that was working along side, Provencio said. "We are going to bust our asses, go down into the ugliest, most dangerous situation, we will show these guys we're not pussies."

"It was sad the way his mindset was," Provencio said. "That's the way he worked. I didn't like that."

Granite Mountain's reputation was well known and a lot of crews, including his own, didn't want to work with Marsh and his crew, Provencio said.

"I hoped I didn't end up on the same piece of line as them," he said.

Provencio said he talked to Yarnell Hill fire supervisors, including planning operations supervisor Paul Musser, and Blue Ridge Hotshot Superintendent Brian Frisby, immediately after the Granite Mountain crew was burned over as recovery efforts were under way.

"They were in shock in what had transpired and why it came down that way," Provencio said.

In October 2013 a group of hotshot superintendents went to the Yarnell Hill fire fatality site and went over the scenario they believe led to the tragedy, Provencio said.

The hotshot superintendents concluded that the Yarnell Hill disaster was one that many of them saw coming for years. The crew, under Marsh's leadership, had been lucky until June 30 because it had survived a series of bad leadership decisions.

"This shit shouldn't have ever happened," one hotshot superintendent said during the gathering of those who best know how a hotshot crew should safely operate.

John Dougherty runs InvestigativeMEDIA, a nonprofit news agency. For more on the Yarnell Hill Fire and other reports, visit