AZ State Forester’s Remarks on Deadly Yarnell Hill Fire Cause Outcry

Arizona Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne reportedly made critical remarks about Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team that lost 19 members in the Yarnell Hill (AZ) Fire on June 30.

The wildland fire killed 19 members of the 20-member Hotshot team, including Marsh. Storms forced the fire to change direction and head directly onto the firefighters’ path. It took crews 15 days to get the fire completely under control.

In an article on the independent journalism blog Investigative Media, Payne is quoted as saying Marsh “broke firefighting protocols and put people at risk.” Payne allegedly said Marsh should have posted a lookout to track the fire, and should not have taken his men into a blind hollow filled with dense, dry vegetation. Payne then added Marsh’s decision was “a serious miscalculation.”

The Forestry Division issued a statement on Tuesday, July 30, saying the comments were “personal, unauthorized opinions” that should not have been made public because official investigations have not been completed. State Forester Scott Hunt spoke out against Payne, apologizing on the State Forestry’s behalf for Payne’s “inappropriate expression of opinion as fact,” citing that the investigations are not yet complete.

Prescott (AZ) Fire Chief Dan Fraijo was offended by the criticisms against Marsh, describing him as “one of the most intelligent and hardest-working people” he has known. Fraijo referred to the remarks as one of the most disgusting incidents he’s seen in his career, and said Payne’s comments were “unethical and insensitive” amidst ongoing investigations.

Payne’s agency was responsible for firefighting operations on the day Marsh and his crew lost their lives. The agency has hired an outside team to conduct an investigation, and Hunt said his agency has taken no position on causes of deaths pending the investigation’s results.

Payne spoke to the Arizona Republic on Tuesday, saying the blogger John Dougherty misquoted and misrepresented him. Forestry spokesman Jim Paxon supported Payne’s assertions that he was misquoted. Paxon said Dougherty drew his own conclusions and that the article is an example of yellow journalism.

Dougherty, however, says Payne willingly gave his thoughts and opinions on Marsh’s performance. He claims Payne called him Tuesday to request a technical clarification but did not say he had been misquoted. Dougherty said Payne told him during the conversation, “‘I may lose my job.”

Spokesman for Governor Jan Brewer (AZ) said the governor had no information on whether Payne faces discipline or dismissal. Dougherty is quoted as saying if something did go wrong during the fire, and Payne loses his job for being honest, there is something wrong with that.

In an earlier interview with The Republic, Payne hinted that the hotshots made mistakes and miscalculations, but also said the unpredictable nature of fires makes crews constantly re-evaluate safety precautions and risks.

Payne added, “You can kind of see there were things done wrong… in fighting fires, we’ve all done things wrong… I don’t know why they left the black. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.” Paxon said it remains unclear why the crew abandoned the safety of a burned-out area. He said how that decision was made and who made it is still unclear.

A Serious Accident Investigation Team is investigating the causes of deaths for the 19 firefighters, and is expected to release its findings in mid-September.

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The Yarnell Hill Fire took more lives than any U.S. wildfire in the past 80 years. To read about the tragic fire’s development and aftermath, see Report: Erratic Fire Behavior in Wildland Fire that Killed 19 AZ Firefighters, Damage Shocks Yarnell Fire Evacuees on Return Home, and Autopsy Findings Reveal Burns, Breathing Issues Killed AZ Firefighters.   

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