FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The families of a dozen Granite Mountain Hotshots are suing Arizona public agencies over the deaths of 19 men, and trying to force changes to ensure the safety of firefighters.
A wrongful death lawsuit filed this week seeks damages for funeral costs, pain and suffering, and lost income. It also seeks a definitive answer on what went wrong during last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire.
“The families want to ensure they understand clearly what happened, why it happened and to ensure that whatever needs to be done now or in the future to avoid tragedies like this is indeed done,” Pat McGroder, an attorney for the families, said today.
The families had notified the state, Yavapai County and the Central Yavapai Fire District of a possible lawsuit in December, offering to settle for more than $220 million. They also wanted changes in fire suppression techniques that would boost safety on fire lines, better equipment and a program that would use the Hotshots’ deaths as a learning tool for other wildland firefighters.
McGroder said the state rebuffed efforts by the families to talk openly and honestly about the fire that trapped the Hotshots in a brush-choked canyon outside Yarnell, destroyed 127 homes and scorched 13 square miles.
The defendants named in the lawsuit either declined comment today or did not immediately respond to requests for comment. An attorney for the Central Yavapai Fire District, Nick Cornelius, said in December that he didn’t believe there is a basis for claims against the agency or its staff.
The deadline to file a lawsuit is Monday, the one-year anniversary of the firefighters’ deaths. Earlier this week, more than 160 property owners in and around Yarnell sued the state, saying it failed miserably in its management of the lightning-sparked blaze.
A report by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health reached that conclusion in a report on the wildfire. An earlier investigation commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division found that state fire officials communicated poorly but followed proper procedures when the Hotshots were killed.
Gov. Jan Brewer used caution in addressing potential lawsuits earlier this month. She said the agencies that produced the reports did a good job and that the deaths were an unfortunate, horrific tragedy that might spur change.
“I think that eventually it will come to the conclusion that certain, possibly different methods, techniques — call it what you wish — will be improved,” she said.
The families’ lawsuit contends that fire managers didn’t act quickly enough to extinguish the blaze, failed to have adequate air resources and staff on hand, didn’t make the safety of firefighters a top priority and did not alert the Hotshots to the erratic fire behavior and wind that day.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court include widows and fathers of 12 of the 19 Hotshots. They are: Juliann Ashcraft, Claire Caldwell, Krista Carter, Michael Mackenzie, Grant McKee, Daniel Parker, John Percin, Desiree Steed, Stephanie Turbyfill, Roxanne Warneke, Carl Whitted and Joseph Woyjeck.
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