Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew History

** This post was originally published on September 18, 2016 **

Former Prescott Fire Chief, and WFGI Board Director Darrell Willis

Former Prescott Fire Chief, and WFGI Board Director Darrell Willis

 by Darrell Willis
Board Director (2015-2017)

You cannot speak of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew (GMIHC) without first discussing the foundation that led to their creation.  In 1990, the first interagency operating and evacuation plan was developed. This was with the cooperation of Prescott Fire Department, Prescott National Forest, State Land Department, and Yavapai County  The Prescott Area Wildland Urban Interface Commission was established. Between 1991 and 2000 yearly interagency urban interface and evacuation drills began with intense public education on defensible space. The Prescott Fire Department and the Prescott National Forest worked on addressing the wildland/urban interface and began prescribed burns and mechanical fuels mitigation within the community.

In 2001, Fire Chief Darrell Willis asked the Prescott City Council for permission to hire an outside consultant to conduct a wildland risk analysis.  The City Council agreed and Hunt Research Inc. was hired to conduct a comprehensive wildland risk analysis and develop a community-wide vegetation management plan for the City.  The analysis found that Prescott was “living on the edge”, and was one of nine communities in the Southwestern United States at risk of a catastrophic wildfire.  Recommendations from this report included the establishment of a wildland division and a wildland fire crew that could respond to wildfires and assist the community with defensible space.

Chief Willis had a vision; he wanted to see Prescott prepared for any wildland fire problem.  Chief Willis applied for and was awarded a state fire assistant grant to begin defensible space treatment on private property. He was also given the daunting task of mitigating the problem within the Prescott area.

Chief Willis hired Duane Steinbrink to manage the newly formed fuels management crew. That year the fuels management crew built defensible space around 392 homes. This crew was fully grant funded with no cost to the city of Prescott. This continued into 2002 with 738 more homes being protected by fuels mitigation/defensible space. Also that year the Indian Fire erupted outside the city limits of Prescott. The disaster was averted due to the fuels treatment, sound tactics, and interagency cooperation.

Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew’s Station

Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew’s Station

The city of Prescott was the first city in the state of Arizona to adopt a wildland/urban interface code.  The Prescott Fire Department established a hazardous tree removal program. The ponderosa pines were being decimated by a beetle. Todd Rhines was hired as the Fire Department Fuels Management Supervisor and Eric Marsh was hired as a Fuels Crew Member. During 2003 they removed 10,000 beetle-killed ponderosa pines. At a fee of $55 per tree, paid for by the homeowners, these fees covered the cost of the program. The Fuels Management Crew continued to create defensible space, treating an additional 545 homes.

Based on this foundation, in 2004, Chief Willis, with full support of the city manager and city council established Crew 7. Crew 7 was a 20 person Type II Initial Attack hand crew that created defensible space and was completely funded by grants, plus they were available to fight wildland fires.

The leadership of Crew 7 included Todd Rhines, Tim McElwee, Marty Cole, and Eric Marsh.  When Crew 7 was sent on wildfire assignments 100% of the cost was reimbursed by the hosting agency. Crew 7 was on fire assignment for a total of 52 days. Crew 7 fought 11 wildfires in the Prescott basin area alone.  The fuels program assisted with 267 homes, treated 159 homes and treating 113 acres.

At this time a software program called “Red Zone” was used in assessing the risk of properties in any wildfire events around the city proper. Chief Willis, Duane Steinbrink, and Eric Marsh wanted the city of Prescott to have the best wildland fire service.  They wanted Crew 7 to be an example of how cities within the wildland/urban interface should be. They were on the cutting edge of the future.

Between the years of 2005 and 2008 – 619 homes were treated, 385 hazardous trees felled (383 tons), 593 acres treated, 675 plans reviewed, 2586 additional homes assessed, 626 building plans reviewed and 10,875 tons of material taken into the city’s transfer station (the transfer station collected fees per weight of material taken in and then selling the material to various other companies). On top of all of this work Crew 7 went out for a total of 129 days on fire assignments.

Yet, one of the most important events happened in 2007.  Crew 7 received approval, from the Southwest Area Coordinating Group, becoming the first-hand crew in the nation hosted by a municipality to be listed as an Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) in training; thus becoming the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew (GMIHC).  Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots was funded to provide the Prescott National Forest with a fuels mitigation project on Mount Francis. Their first assignments totaled 74 days.

Chief Willis was promoted to the city of Prescott’s Emergency Services Director over the Fire Department, Airport and Regional Communications Center. The crew in training became fully certified as an interagency hotshot crew in 2008. Joining the ranks of the most elite wildland firefighters in the country and accomplishing something that no other city department had been able to do.

The following year they were on fire assignments for 95 days, did 1101 assessments, 89 homes were treated and 278 acres were treated. Chief Steinbrink retired, in 2009, as the Wildland Division Chief. Chief Willis was asked to take over the Wildland Division. The GMIHC were committed to 73 days of fire assignments, completing 356 assessments, 56 homes were treated, 148 additional homes were assessed for treatment, 137 chip jobs were completed, 101 hazardous trees felled, and 222 acres were treated with an additional 26 acres of open space.  Their responsibilities were growing along with their abilities.

In 2010 the GMIHC obtained two 100% grants that completely funded the Wildland Division. Their work of assessments, treatments of home, treatment of acreage, along with chip jobs, trees felled, and inspections were doubling in number, then add an additional 115 days of fire assignments.

The National Fire Protection Association determined that the Prescott Fire Departments’ Wildland Division Fuels Management Program was to be considered the “Gold Standard” in the nation. The year was 2012 and the GMIHC continued all of their work within the city, with the added responsibilities of eliminating several hazardous trees throughout the city. They became part of the city’s snow removal response team along with maintaining 150 acres of open space around Goldwater Lake. No other jurisdiction in the country had been able to accomplish as many objectives or show as much fuel mitigation as the GMIHC. The Hotshots had been protecting the city with over $3.1 billion in assessed value, over 18,000 homes, and 24,000 residents.

Entering their sixth season the 2013 GMIHC became instructors at the Arizona Incident and Management Academy. They continued their very aggressive fuels treatment programs in the residential areas and continued to complete an additional 120 acres of fuel treatment around Goldwater Lake.  The GMIHC successfully went on wildfire responses to the Perkinsville, Prescott Valley, Green Gate, Hart, Thompson Ridge, Doce (where again they protected the city Prescott), West Spruce and Mount Josh fires.

Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot crew was then called to the Yarnell Hill fire. This elite wildland fire crew lost 19 of its 20 members at 1647 hours on June 30, 2013.  Their commitment to excellence, their hard-working attitude and their love for family and community is missed.  These men, this crew was on the cutting edge and will always remain so.