YARNELL, AZ - The deputy director of the Arizona State Forestry Division is speaking out about the moments leading up to the deaths of 19 Prescott firefighters - and a war of words is brewing.
Deputy Director Jerry Payne told ABC15 there was a break in standard firefighting guidelines as the Granite Mountain Hotshots were battling the Yarnell Hill Fire, something that can happen in special circumstances.
We spoke to Payne following a Tuesday report on InvestigativeMedia.com. According to that report, Payne is quoted as saying the hotshot leader, 43-year-old Eric Marsh, "violated several basic wildfire rules including not knowing the location of the fire, not having a spotter observing the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation near a wildfire."
Payne is also cited on InvestigativeMedia.com saying that Marsh "put those people at risk" based on the 18 Watch Out Situations, but it was a "calculated risk."
Speaking to ABC15, Payne said his comments to InvestigativeMedia.com were misinterpreted, that he did not intend to blame Marsh and that guidelines can often be broken based on the situation.
The author of the InvestigativeMedia.com report, long-time Valley reporter John Dougherty, says he stands by his original article.
This new information comes ahead of an official report expected to be released in September about what led up to the hotshot deaths on June 30.
Carrie Templin, public information officer for the team investigating the fire, told ABC15 the Arizona State Forestry Division is not part of the investigation, and she doesn't know what information Payne is basing any claims on. She also reiterated only a 72-hour report on the fire has been issued, and the investigation itself is not complete.
In a statement issued at 5 p.m. Tuesday, forest officials said, "State Forestry apologizes for Mr. Payne's inappropriate expression of opinion as fact and unfounded speculation that prejudges the ultimate conclusion of the investigation."
Read the full statement from the Arizona State Forestry Division on the next page or access it here .
Payne told both ABC15 and InvestigativeMedia.com that he believes Marsh felt he had time to lead the Hotshots from a safe area on a ridge when the fire was a mile or two away.
Payne said Marsh communicated with their lookout, Brendan McDonough, to make sure he had an escape route. McDonough then left his position to join the Blue Ridge Hotshots nearby as the fire approached.
Going through the valley would have been the fastest way for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots to reach the next safety zone, Payne said.
According to InvestigativeMedia.com , Payne said they didn't even make it halfway and it was an "honest mistake."
McDonough was the only survivor from the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.
The fire was fully contained on July 10.
The Arizona State Forestry Division issued the following statement Tuesday at 5 p.m.:
The Arizona State Forestry Division (AZSF) has received numerous inquiries in reference to personal unauthorized opinions made by Deputy State Forester Jerry Payne regarding the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities.
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 prejudices the ultimate conclusion of the investigation. The investigation reports are expected to be released in the coming months.