Firefighter built, tried to protect Prescott crew

Jul 3, 2013, 5:22 PM | Updated: Jul 9, 2013, 1:24 am

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) – Eric Marsh built the Granite Mountain Hotshots from nothing _ and died trying to protect the crew that friends say constituted his life’s work.

A lifelong wildland firefighter, the 43-year-old Marsh founded the Granite Mountain team, the first municipal crew of elite, Hotshot firefighters in the nation. He and all but one of the 19 men who served under him were killed Sunday when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix.

As superintendent, Marsh was in charge of ensuring the crew’s safety, friends and colleagues said. It’s the one position on a Hotshot team that calls for caution and prudence as well as confidence and experience.

“You’ve got basically a crew of professional athletes working for you, and they’ll do anything you say. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with that,” said Marsh’s friend, Patrick Moore, who is superintendent of the Pleasant Valley Hotshots, another Arizona firefighting team.

Superintendents are the link between the men battling a raging fire and the planning team back at headquarters. Deputies often make tactical decisions, while the chief aim of the superintendent is to get his men back into their trucks at the end of the day.

“It’s their job to watch, and if the plan isn’t working, it is their job to say we have to do something else. Safety is paramount,” said Fire Management Officer Don Nunley, who supervises a superintendent in the nearby Payson Ranger District.

Before they were killed Sunday in the largest loss of firefighter life since Sept. 11, 2001, Marsh and his men deployed their emergency shelters, which are designed to protect them from intense heat in desperate situations. Last year, Marsh let a university news reporter look on as he drilled his rookies on how to use their shelters. At the time, he said, preparation was everything.

“If we’re not actually doing it, we’re thinking and planning about it,” he said.

A native of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Marsh was known for his cool head and “Southern gentleman” demeanor, even in the hairiest of situations. He grew up in picturesque Ashe County, a sparsely populated tourist destination with a population of 27,000 known for its hiking trails and thriving Christmas tree industry.

Other teams would rib him about his laid-back manner.

“Eric had this deep soothing voice that no matter how amped everyone around him got, he was able to stay real mellow. We’d be like, `Out west we gotta move a little faster, talk a little faster, Eric,'” Moore said.

Marsh’s parents, Jane and John Marsh, moved to Arizona five years ago to be closer to their only son and his wife, Amanda. His father, a biology teacher, was a former county commissioner.

“He was a loving and caring son, and he was compassionate and concerned about the well-being of the crew members,” John Marsh said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. “He was concerned for them, not just in the fire. They were like his family.”

A fifth grade science teacher recalled Marsh as a brilliant student with a passion for the natural sciences. He was a linebacker on his high school football team and later studied biology at Appalachian State University.

Marsh spent most of his professional career fighting wildfires _ a rarity for a job that generally draws younger guys who see firefighting as a stepping stone to something else, Prescott Fire Capt. Jeff Knotek said. He started working on forming his own Hotshots team eight years ago, when he worked as part of a municipal fuels management crew in Prescott that focused on clearing overly dense vegetation. The group made the ranks of Hotshots in 2008.

While the federal government certifies teams as highly-qualified Hotshots _ groups that are often dispatched to the hottest part of a blaze to clear fuels and protect structures _ Marsh’s group was unique because it operated as part of a city fire department, rather than a state or federal agency.

“Eric had to assemble all those elements on his own to get it into shape, so it was a labor of love for him,” Moore said. “It was his vision that got it to that level.”

The Granite Mountain Hotshots are headquartered in a cobalt blue corrugated metal building surrounded with a barbed wire fence. A humble break room is decorated with a still life of pears.

It contrasts with the gleaming white firehouse across the street in Prescott, where three fire trucks peek out from behind glass windows.

On Tuesday, 13 trucks and cars remained parked in the gravel around the unorthodox headquarters. Families have been coming to retrieve the cars at night.

During the off-season, Marsh worked as an instructor, helping to train hundreds of Arizona firefighters. Sedona firefighter Mark Beneitone was one of his many students, and remembered Marsh telling vivid stories _ enlivening classes that might otherwise have been a chore because of the litany of rules and procedures involved in fighting wildland fires.

“You were sitting at your desk,” he said, “but you were able to picture it.

As they mourn their comrades, fire superintendents are also weighing what the unfathomable tragedy means for them _ both personally and professionally. Before, the near total destruction of a crew was possible only in theory, said Moore, who spoke from the Nevada border, where he is leading a crew fighting another wildfire.

“It definitely changes how you’re viewing your job right now,” he said. “I always took some comfort from having him on our wing.”

For volunteer, fundraising and other ways to assist those affected by the Yarnell Hill Fire, go to


Associated Press reporters Mitch Weiss in Charlotte, N.C., and Felicia Fonseca in Prescott contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Pr...
Associated Press

WHO panel says Monkeypox is not a global emergency ‘at this stage’

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization said the escalating monkeypox outbreak in more than 50 countries should be closely monitored but does not warrant being declared a global health emergency. In a statement Saturday, a WHO emergency committee said many aspects of the outbreak were “unusual” and acknowledged that monkeypox — which is endemic […]
20 hours ago
Police in riot gear surround the Arizona Capitol after protesters reached the front of the Arizona ...
Associated Press

Dueling narratives of Arizona protests ended with tear gas

PHOENIX (AP) — Protests outside the Arizona Capitol over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that ended with a volley of tear gas were variously described Saturday as either peaceful or driven by anarchists intent on destruction. Republican Senate President Karen Fann issued a news release describing it as a thwarted […]
20 hours ago
Emergency personnel look over the sight of a  helicopter that crashed in Blair, W.Va., on Thursday,...
Associated Press

West Virginia helicopter crash victims identified

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Medical examiners in West Virginia have released the names of six people killed in the crash of a Vietnam-era helicopter that gave tour rides. The aircraft crashed Wednesday during its last planned flight at an annual reunion for helicopter enthusiasts in Logan County. All six people aboard were killed. The state’s […]
20 hours ago
Associated Press

Army private’s plea shelved internet fantasy chat defense

NEW YORK (AP) — An Army private charged with plotting to murder members of his unit overseas with help from a secretive violent anarchist group was planning a defense calling it all an internet fantasy before pleading guilty just before trial, court records show. Plans for the defense of Ethan Phelan Melzer was revealed in […]
20 hours ago
Associated Press

Jury awards $21M to family of pregnant teen shot by police

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A federal jury awarded $21 million to the family of a pregnant teen who was shot and killed by undercover police officers in Northern California five years ago, attorneys said. Elena Mondragon was a passenger in a BMW pulling out of a Hayward apartment complex when an unmarked van filled […]
20 hours ago
Associated Press

LAPD officer who died was beaten in training, mother claims

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Los Angeles police officer who died of neck injuries suffered during training had been beaten by fellow officers in an exercise meant to “simulate a mob,” according to a wrongful-death claim filed against the city by his mother. Houston Tipping, 32, was hurt May 26 at the police academy and […]
20 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Day & Night Air

Tips to lower your energy bill in the Arizona heat

Does your summer electric bill make you groan? Are you looking for effective ways to reduce your bill?
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
Firefighter built, tried to protect Prescott crew