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Yarnell Firefighter's Family Seeks $36 Mil In Lawsuit

3:52 PM, Nov 16, 2013   |    comments
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Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Richard Ruelas, The Arizona Republic

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."

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