PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer said Wednesday the deputy state forester spoke out of turn in expressing his view that the head of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was at least partly responsible for his own death and that of 18 of his colleagues.
Brewer said it appears Jerry Payne expressed his own opinion about the deaths during the Yarnell Hill Fire. But she said any such conclusions were premature, as the investigation is ongoing.
Payne, in comments reported by investigativemedia.com, said Eric Marsh, the senior member of the crew who was acting as the “division supervisor,” broke several wildfire rules which “put those people at risk.” That included not knowing the location of the fire and leading his crew through thick, unburned vegetation in an effort to escape.
“We were certainly concerned about his comments because it's his opinion,” Brewer said.
“Everybody has an opinion,” she continued. “The bottom line is we need experts to tell us exactly what took place up there and what caused that great tragedy.”
Brewer said she is expecting a final report in September or October.
Payne declined to be interviewed, said Forestry Division spokeswoman Carrie Dennett.
She said Payne did admit making the comments. The dispute he has with the report, Dennett said, is that it did not make clear that this was just his personal opinion and not part of any official finding or statement.
Payne's remarks also prompted his boss, State Forester Scott Hunt, to issue a public apology for Payne's “inappropriate expression of opinion as fact and unfounded speculation that prejudges the ultimate conclusion of the investigation.” Hunt said he is awaiting the findings of two separate probes.
One is by a Serious Accident Investigation Team put together specially to look at this incident. Dennett said members include experts who are state and federal employees, but none from Arizona state government.
A separate inquiry is being conducted by the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health.