Dennis Wagner, The Republic | azcentral.com
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.