The mother of a firefighter who died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire started legal action this week alleging negligence and a cover-up in the death of her son and 18 other firefighters.
Grant McKee, a 21-year-old who grew up in Costa Mesa, was one of 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew killed June 30 while they fought flames that scorched thousands of acres in Arizona.
Costa Mesa resident Marcia McKee's lawyers Thursday sent notice of her $36-million claim to a dozen officials for the state of Arizona, Yavapai County and city of Prescott, where McKee's crew was based.
"She wants answers about why her son died, and she also wants changes to be made," attorney Craig Knapp said.
Depositions under oath and subpoenaed documents will be the only way to extract the truth, Knapp said.
He dismissed a September report by local, state and federal investigators that found there was no evidence of negligence or recklessness in the firefighters' deaths.
"The Yarnell Hill Fire Report is a whitewash," the claim notice states. "Its primary goal is to avoid blaming anyone. As a result, an [sic] trusting, uninformed person reading the Yarnell Hill Fire Report uncritically would think that the death of 19 men was just bad luck and no one's fault — which is false."
Marcia McKee's claim demands $12 million each from the state, county and city, but it offers to settle for a combined $12 million from the three.
Knapp alleged that systematic failures plagued the firefighting process, including the lack of a management plan for the Granite Mountain team and an inappropriate risk-benefit analysis.
"What they were trying to save essentially was brush," Knapp said of the team members when they were overtaken by flames that reached temperatures of 2,000 degrees.
According to the claim, the crew was not property equipped or adequately informed of the fire's movement, which the report describes as quickly changing direction and speed before cutting the hotshots off from safety.
The city, county and state violated almost two dozen standards or guidelines for firefighters' safety that included providing updates on weather conditions and identifying escape routes, according to the claim notice.
"That negligence killed Grant McKee and the 18 other members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew," it states.
September's fire report describes a gap in communications of more than 30 minutes when there was no information from the Granite Mountain team.
Marcia McKee wants that changed for future fire crews by providing them with GPS tracking and updated communications equipment, according to her lawyer.
"With the use of modern technology and common sense, these deaths could have been prevented," Knapp said.
Attorneys for Yavapai County and Prescott did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. A representative for Arizona's attorney general declined to comment. Media contacts for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who is named in the claim notice, did not respond to an email.