Yarnell Hill fire: Controversy over comments from FS official - New York News

Forestry official says hot shot leader "put people at risk"

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Eric Marsh Eric Marsh
YARNELL, Ariz. -

Today marks the 1 month anniversary of the day 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shots were killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire. The elite group became trapped when winds shifted on them and cut off their escape route.

At least one state forestry official is saying mistakes were made that day -- and that the team's leader, Eric Marsh, didn't follow protocols.

These claims are being made in an online news article that quotes the deputy director of the Arizona Department of Forestry.

He has been a major figure in the investigation. In fact just last week he was part of a group that took the media to the spot where the hot shots died. In the article he says mistakes were made.

The article quotes Deputy State Forestry Director Jerry Payne as saying Eric Marsh, the most senior member of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots was acting as the "division supervisor" and broke several basic wildfire rules.

Payne is quoted saying: "The division supervisor broke those rules and put those people at risk."

The article was written by longtime investigator reporter John Dougherty for investigativemedia.com.

Payne told the writer that it appears the basic rules Marsh violated were rules like -- not knowing the location of the fire and not having a spotter observing the fire.

You remember the hot shot crew's lookout left his post because it became too dangerous. He survived.

The others died trying to escape the fast moving fire. Payne reportedly said that Marsh was trying to lead his crew to a safe zone but to travel through a heavily vegetated box canyon to get there…

"It was a calculated risk. They didn't even make it halfway," Payne is quoted. "It was a serious miscalculation, in my opinion. It was an honest mistake."

Today, the Prescott Fire Chief lashed out at Payne. He calls his comments unethical.

"I think it is one of the most disgusting incidents that I have had in my entire career," said Dan Fraijo.

"Eric Marsh was one of the most intelligent and hardest working people. He took his profession to the science level. I have stellar reports on him. I can tell you that if he was here right now I would do the same things that most of our people would do, I would follow him anywhere. This is a terrible insult to him and to his family and it is unfounded."

"His comments were unauthorized and do not represent the position of the state forestry. I don't think the conversation was intended to state a position for state forestry and for that Mr. Payne is extremely sorry and regretful," said Jim Paxon, spokesman for Game and Fish.

Writer John Dougherty told us he stands by his story (it can be found here: http://bit.ly/17f8aoz).

The official investigation has not been completed.

Statement by Forestry Division official Scott Hunt

State Forester Scott Hunt wants to make it clear that State Forestry has taken no position on the causes of the fatalities and awaits the results of the two independent investigations that are currently being conducted by the Serious Accident Investigation Team and Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health. State Forestry apologizes for Mr. Payne's inappropriate expression of opinion as fact and unfounded speculation that prejudges the ultimate conclusion of the investigation. The investigation reports are expected to be released in the coming months.

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