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Firefighters settlement in deadly wildfire includes dad of former Costa Mesa man

Firefighters settlement in deadly wildfire includes dad of former Costa Mesa man
Grant Quinn McKee. (Prescott Fire Department, Daily Pilot)

A recent settlement between Arizona and the families of a dozen firefighters who were killed in one of the deadliest wildfires in the nation's history includes the father of former Costa Mesa resident Grant McKee Jr.

McKee was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew members who died on June 28, 2013, while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona.

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According to an announcement Monday — one day before the second anniversary of the deaths — families of 12 of the firefighters reached a settlement with the state, ending a strained yearlong negotiation that divided the town of Prescott and raised questions about training and how the state fights fires.

The 12 families, including McKee's father Grant McKee Sr., will receive $50,000 each, according to a copy of the settlement agreement.

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Another lawsuit brought by McKee's mother, Costa Mesa resident Marcia McKee, is still pending, according to attorney Michael C. Sheedy.

Her $36-million claim was brought separately from the other 12 families in November 2013, and she hasn't yet been approached with a settlement offer, Sheedy said.

A workplace lawsuit also announced Monday will ensure that the families of the other seven firefighters killed will receive $10,000 each from the Arizona State Forestry Division.

In addition to the financial settlements, the Forestry Division also agreed to make improvements in how it manages fires, including overhauling its radio communication efforts.

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The Forestry Division also pledged to encourage the National Wildfire Coordination Group, a federal interagency firefighting group, to create a course that addresses "the reality of death" and instructs firefighters to make estate planning and custody arrangements.

Roxanne Warneke visited Yarnell Hill, where her husband, Billy, and his crew were overtaken by a quick-turning brush fire. The visit was troubling, Warneke said, because her husband would not have chosen to descend into a deep, brush-filled valley unless he was ordered to.

"Descending into that canyon went against everything he was taught," Warneke said at a televised news conference on Monday in Phoenix. "After that day, I knew I needed answers."

A common complaint from families of the dead Hotshots was that state officials did not fully explain what caused the tragedy and whether it could have been avoided. The Forestry Division agreed that when all litigation concludes, including appeals, it will have an eight-hour meeting with the families and consultants to review information about the fire and answer questions, with lawyers present.

In 2013 a report prepared by local, state and federal investigators said that several factors contributed to the tragedy, such as wind, terrain and the firefighters' movements. It did not pinpoint a leading cause of the deaths. It pointed out management lapses but found no evidence of recklessness or negligence.

That same year, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health leveled two citations against the Forestry Division, proposing more than $500,000 in fines for failing to provide a safe work environment by ignoring changing weather patterns and fire behavior.

The Forestry Division specified in the settlement that it was not admitting to either citation and refuted all allegations of wrongdoing.

Administrative Law Judge Michael Mosesso approved the settlement on Thursday. The settlement was another victory to the families of the firefighters killed on duty, following a decision by the Prescott's retirement board last year to award enhanced benefits to the families of the 12 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who worked on a seasonal basis and were initially denied the benefits accorded to full-time employees.

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Arizona Atty. Gen. Mark Brnovich was adamant Monday that the state admitted no fault, but he said the settlement fixed a problem without assigning blame.

"We don't measure our success in wins and losses. We are not State Farm, we are the state of Arizona," Brnovich said. "Some folks look for answers, some look for fights. We wanted to look for answers."

Attorney Patrick McGroder, who represented the families in their suit against the state, called the negotiations "grueling" and said the years leading up to the settlement wore on family members of the firefighters, especially the 12 who were originally classified as seasonal workers.

— Daily Pilot staff writer Jeremiah Dobruck contributed to this report

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