USA A former Arizona hotshot superintendent is suing the federal government to obtain aircraft radio transmissions that may help explain the deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013.
Fred Schoeffler alleges in his federal court complaint that the Department of Agriculture has denied a public-records request for recordings and transcripts of U.S. Forest Service radio traffic among employees who were conducting an aerial firefighting study during the fatal blaze.
Schoeffler, a former hotshot supervisor in Payson for 26 years, alleges that the Forest Service answered his Freedom of Information Act request by claiming they “did not find any responsive records.” Wildfire officials previously have acknowledged the study was underway, and Schoeffler’s complaint notes that air-to-ground voices of those taking part are audible in Forest Service videos released after the fire.
A Forest Service spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on litigation.
The Yarnell Hill Fire, caused by lightning, raged out of control June 30, 2013, and killed all but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots when they became trapped in a chaparral-choked canyon. Flames swept through the mountain community 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, forcing evacuations and destroying 127 structures.
Investigators have never fully explained why the crew left a safe zone and descended into a blind arroyo just as fierce winds blew the fire into an inferno. The Arizona Industrial Commission cited the state Division of Forestry for multiple firefighting safety violations and issued fines totaling $559,000. However, that case and wrongful death litigation filed by hotshot families were settled without providing answers. Investigations: Second-guessing or useful for future?
Wildfire fatality investigations have emerged as a controversial topic. The Forest Service and some experts contend that, when deaths occur, investigators should not attempt to determine what went wrong or who was to blame because it amounts to unfair second-guessing. Others argue that fatal accidents cannot be prevented in the future unless previous errors are understood.
Members of a Forest Service hotshot crew were key witnesses in the Yarnell Hill tragedy. Their agency declined to cooperate with state investigations and denied record requests from The Arizona Republic and other media.
Courts: Family of hotshot killed in Yarnell fire cannot sue Arizona
Schoeffler, who has studied and written extensively about wildfire behavior, was not available for comment. His work includes an online article that attributed the 2013 disaster to “human factors” and described official inquiries as “the biggest cover-up and whitewash in WFF (wildfire fighting) history.”
Attorney Brad Gardner, who represents Schoeffler, said his client is not seeking money and has no interest other than to find out what happened in the Yarnell Hill Fire and share that information with the public. “He feels pretty strongly that not everything has come out at this point,” Gardner added.
Schoeffler, in his complaint, alleges that after he asked for records, some Forest Service employees and Granite Mountain family members communicated about his inquiry, suggesting it was an attempt to create “drama.” He also sought those records.
Schoeffler’s suit contends the USDA and Forest Service provided some documents that were “wholly unresponsive” to his multiple requests. He asserts that the agencies violated federal public-records law, and he asks a judge to order them to release documents and tapes.