Yarnell firefighter's family seeks $36 million

(USA TODAY) The mother of a fallen Granite Mountain hotshot is accusing state and local officials of ignoring fundamental firefighting procedures, providing inadequate equipment to her son and attempting to "whitewash" the cause of his agonizing death in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

In a notice of claim filed Friday, Marcia McKee blasted the investigation into the deaths of the 19 hotshots, calling it a "blame-avoiding, jumbled and untrustworthy cover-up" — reiterating criticism by some in the wildland firefighting community who said the investigation failed to deliver take-away lessons as prior investigations have.

McKee, who lives in California, also asserts that officials were negligent by failing to oversee, communicate and track her 21-year-old son, Grant McKee, who before his death on June 30 was preparing to marry. His mother's claim asks for $36 million, $12 million each from the state, Prescott and Yavapai County. She would settle for $12 million within the next 60 days.

The notice of claim, a legal precursor to a lawsuit, is the first from a family member of the 19 fallen members of the Prescott-run crew, and its filing pried open new questions and worries among some of the men's survivors.

All but one crew member — Brendan McDonough, who was serving as a lookout — died after they left an apparently safe area and descended into a bowl, where flames driven by a monsoon storm overtook them. The official incident report describes how others involved in the fire were uncertain about the crew's location at the time.

In a phone interview with The Arizona Republic, Marcia McKee said she filed the claim to learn the truth about what happened in the fire.

"There is no good answer right now," McKee said. "Nobody should have to go through this. No family should have to go through this. But it's the only way to get answers."

The claim names 13 entities or individuals, including Gov. Jan Brewer; Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt; Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis, who oversaw the crew; Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall; the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors; the state Department of Public Safety; and the Arizona Incident Management Team. The governments could settle or allow the case to be resolved in court.

All but former Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo declined to comment or did not return calls.

Fraijo, who no longer works for the city, defended the inquiry into the deaths, saying the 122-page report was a thorough analysis of the operations, training, equipment and firefighting protocols used that day.

Investigators did not assign blame, Fraijo said, adding, "There are certain aspects that they cannot verify because no one was there to see it."

Of McKee's claim, he said, "I don't know what she's trying to accomplish by it. Just on the surface — and, of course, this is just an opinion on my part — I can't see this thing going anywhere."

The 16-page claim filed by Scottsdale law firm Knapp & Roberts alleges that officials "carelessly" allowed the hotshots to move into a chaparral-choked area where escape from the fire was impossible, lost track of the crew and failed to understand the "extreme peril" that confronted the hotshots.

McKee blames her son's death on officials' failure to follow the Standard Firefighting Orders, which include staying abreast of weather conditions, identifying escape routes and keeping safety protocols in mind. She also asserts that officials failed to follow basic safety standards for hotshots known as "Watch Out Situations."

The claim questions the credibility of a three-month investigation into the hotshots' deaths, saying the primary goal of the Serious Accident Investigation Report released Sept.23 was not to find the true cause of the deaths, but to "avoid blaming anyone."

That report found "no indication of negligence, reckless actions or violations of policy or protocol" on the part of the firefighters. It also raised questions about whether there was proper communication, and investigators said incident managers in the future should consider, "when incident complexities and operational tempo escalate rapidly, what are some of the things you can do to minimize resultant confusion?"

Investigators did not publicly release a document, known as the "Management Evaluation Report," to identify causes of the accident, so McKee's claim says no one will ever know why the men died.

"As far as constructing a logical, accurate sequence of events, the Yarnell Hill Fire Report is almost useless," the claim says.

McKee hopes to learn "more complete and more objective information" about her son's death through another report by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. That agency, responsible for investigating workplace injuries to determine whether safety rules and regulations were violated, has offered no insight into what the report might reveal.

Mike Dudley, a co-leader of the inquiry, said the report was researched and written by experts from multiple fire agencies and was vetted by other specialists.

"I will stand by the work in that report," he added. "We were all in agreement with the end result."

Dudley, a U.S. Forest Service regional director of state and private forests based in Utah, declined to talk about the $36 million claim. But he said there is a consensus among professionals that rigid wildfire safety rules should not be used to evaluate performance in a tragedy.

Although Firefighter Safety Orders and Watch Out Situations are a part of training, he said, conditions in a severe blaze such as the Yarnell Hill Fire are so dynamic that it is almost impossible to adhere to the protocols.

Dudley said modern firefighters focus instead on maintaining situational awareness as reflected in the acronym "LCES," for lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety.

Jim Karels, Florida state forester and director of the Serious Accident Investigation, declined to comment on the claim's merits, but said the team that investigated the deaths did so with honesty and integrity.

"There's no whitewash or cover-up," Karels added.

McKee said she decided to file the claim after seeing the results of the investigation. "They wanted to make it short and sweet," she said. "But it's not short and sweet."

McKee said she had not had much contact with the other Granite Mountain Hotshot families and was not sure how they would respond to news of the claim.

"I think anybody that's involved should want to know the answer and make sure it doesn't happen again," McKee said. "This is something that could have been prevented, and I'd still have my son here."

David Turbyfill, father of Travis Turbyfill, who died in the fire, said no amount of money would bring back the men. He is concerned that lawsuits against the city, county and state could stymie what he believes are much-needed policy changes in how wildland fires are managed.

"There needs to be a political push, a family push — a concerted family push — to our representatives, our legislative system … to seek funding to make the changes necessary," he said.

David Turbyfill suggests GPS technology to track crews as well as changes to emergency fire shelters, the last-ditch personal devices the hotshots huddled under to try to survive the 2,000-plus-degree flames.

The potential lawsuit caused mixed feelings for Linda Caldwell, Grant McKee's aunt and the mother of Robert Caldwell, another hotshot who died in the fire.

Caldwell said she couldn't put a price on her nephew and her son, and said Marcia McKee didn't need to seek additional funds beyond what's being given by the government and private donors.

Caldwell disagreed with some of the assertions in the claim.

"You can't come in as a layperson and say, 'What about this?'" she said. "You have to know the facts first before you start throwing accusations out there."

But Caldwell said she also has unanswered questions — about the resources sent to certain areas, about final radio transmissions, about vague location directions. She said a lawsuit might unearth the answers she is looking for.

"I guess I'm glad it's her and not me doing it," Caldwell said. "I wouldn't want to be the first person doing this."

Caldwell said she has not entertained filing legal action.

"We always try to think of what our son would want us to do," she said.

McKee, 49, who works as a caretaker for an elderly person, said she raised Grant as a single mother after splitting with his father, Scott, when Grant was in second grade.

"He was a great kid," she said. "We were close the entire time, me and him."

As an adolescent, Grant lived with his father, McKee said. She moved into a neighboring apartment complex and saw him regularly, toting her son and his friends around town.

At 17, he moved to Arizona where his cousin, Robert Caldwell, was a firefighter. McKee recalled that her son talked about being a fireman since she dressed him up as one for Halloween at age 5.

After Grant moved to Prescott, McKee said he called and asked her to move there, too. She sent out resumes, she said, but couldn't find a job.

"I would have done anything for him," she said.

Before fire season started, McKee said, Grant visited her in Costa Mesa, Calif. He told her he was planning a mother-and-son trip to Tahiti in February to thank her for everything she'd done.

In her claim, McKee included a note from her son. She said it was sent right after he finished his Granite Mountain training.

"You gave me all you could and would put your life on the line for me," Grant wrote, as quoted in the claim. "Now as an adult I see the struggles you went through to make my life the best (it) could be, you were able to make the best of every situation and I commend you for it."

McKee's claim also recounts the last phone call she shared with her son in which she told him to be careful. According to the claim, Grant told her: "What are the odds of me dying in a fire? Think about it, Mom."

Republic reporters Dennis Wagner and Kristina Goetz contributed to this article.


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