PHOENIX (CN) — A retired firefighting official in Arizona has sued the United States for air-to-ground voice recordings and transcripts from the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters in 2013.
Fred Schoeffler, who was superintendent of the Payson Interagency Hot Shot Crew for 26 years, filed a Freedom of Information Act suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Jan. 6 in Federal Court.
Payson, 89 miles northeast of Phoenix, is surrounded by national forests. Yarnell, 89 miles northwest of Phoenix, is 130 miles from Payson.
On June 30, 2013, a fire burning near Yarnell killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Only one crewmember, Brendan McDonough, survived the blaze. He had been sent to act as a lookout.
The lightning-ignited wildfire caused the greatest loss of firefighters since Sept. 11, 2011, and is the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history. It burned 8,400 acres from June 28 through July 10, and destroyed 127 buildings in Yarnell.
A September 2013 report from the Arizona State Forestry Division found that incident management organizations acted reasonably in managing the fire. It also found the firefighters properly reacted, and no indications of negligence.
But months later, the Industrial Commission of Arizona blamed the Forestry Division for the firefighters’ deaths. The commission found the crew should have been pulled out of the fire sooner, and that priorities were improperly placed on saving property.
In June 2016, Schoeffler filed a FOIA request with the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, requesting all Yarnell Hill Fire air-to-ground voice recordings and written transcripts from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on June 30, 2013.
The USDA responded that it “did not find any responsive records,” the complaint states.
Schoeffler doubts that.
“We do know that they exist because people have told us they exist,” his attorney Brad Gardner said in an interview.
According to the 8-page complaint, the air-to-ground transmissions can be heard in videos the USDA has released publicly. The Arizona Republic reported in 2015 that sole survivor McDonough overheard radio calls that described why the Granite Mountain crew left its safe-zone for the fire.
Schoeffler filed another FOIA request that same month, after an employee of the Coconino National Forest reportedly said Schoeffler had caused Yarnell Hill Fire “drama” to be directed toward that agency. This request sought all records related to Schoeffler and the fire from June 30, 2013 through June 7, 2016 communicated between any Coconino National Forest, federal or state personnel.
“They alleged I was stirring up drama,” Schoeffler told Courthouse News.
In response, the USDA provided Schoeffler with 584 pages of records pertaining to his training and fire experience records.
“What they sent me was totally not in response,” Schoeffler said.
Schoeffler says in his lawsuit that he filed two other FOIA requests to which the USDA did not respond. He asks the court to compel the USDA to turn over the records.
“It seems like to a lot of people think that the picture is not yet complete,” attorney Gardner said.
“People may not like the fact that we are trying to complete the record. … I don’t think we’ve really seen the final story here.”
The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
McDonough’s book, “My Lost Brothers,” published by Hachette in 2016, describes his survivor’s guilt, which drove him to the verge of suicide. The thought of his young daughter saved him as he was about to shoot himself in the head. “Everyone is happy you made it out, but still, you’re a reminder that no one else did,” he wrote.
Production began in June 2016 on a movie about the firefighters. “Granite Mountain,” starring Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly and Jeff Bridges, is slated for release in September.