PHOENIX - Arizona's Forestry Division on Thursday contested citations and fines issued by the state's workplace safety agency for the June deaths of 19 firefighters who were killed battling a wildfire northwest of Phoenix.
The appeal with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health asks for a hearing to contest the citations and nearly $560,000 fine. The letter sent by the Arizona Attorney General on behalf of Forestry said the violations found by the agency and the subsequent citations and fines "are not supported by substantial evidence."
The state's Industrial Commission levied the fines on Dec. 4 after agreeing with workplace safety investigators that the Forestry Division mismanaged the fire and firefighting crews assigned to the Yarnell Hill Fire in June. The commission found the division knowingly put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled crews out earlier.
The blaze killed all but one member of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30 after a change in wind direction pushed the flames back toward their position. The lone member who escaped was acting as a lookout and away from the rest of the crew.
The report by the state's occupational safety and health agency stands in stark contrast to an earlier investigation commissioned by the Forestry Division, which found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures when the firefighters were killed near the small community of Yarnell northwest of Phoenix.
Assistant Attorney General Paul Katz wrote in Thursday's letter that the findings and citations were "contrary to law, arbitrary, capricious, and constitute an abuse of discretion by the Industrial Commission of Arizona." Katz is representing the Forestry Division and state Forester Scott Hunt.
Forestry spokeswoman Carrie Dennett said Hunt would not comment on the filing.
"We still have to review all the materials they used to write their report and then we'll go from there," Dennett said.
The ADOSH investigation found that state fire officials lacked key personnel to battle the Yarnell Hill Fire at critical times. Marshall Krotenberg, the safety agency's lead investigator, told the commission at its Dec. 4 meeting that there should have been officers to ensure firefighters' safety, a planning section chief and a division supervisor, who wasn't replaced after he abandoned his post. He also said fire managers should have removed firefighters an hour before a thunderstorm arrived and its winds began driving flames toward the Hotshots' position.
"The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it," he testified. "But there was no plan to move people out of the way."
In addition, senior fire managers had already determined that the town of Yarnell itself was indefensible, he said.
Some family members of the Hotshots had called the earlier investigation a "whitewash." Those who attended the commission meeting earlier this month said they were happy they were finally getting answers.
"Finally, people that are educated, that are experienced, that have researched it and have a less biased opinion -- they're just there objectively -- ... they get it," said Juliann Ashcraft, whose husband, Andrew Ashcraft, was killed.
The fire destroyed more than 100 homes and burned 13 square miles before it was fully contained on July 10.