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Ariz. fire chief of 19 dead Hotshots says he's being forced out

PRESCOTT, Ariz. The chief of the Arizona fire department that lost 19 wildland firefighters in June says he is being forced out of his job.

Prescott City Manager Craig McConnell told The Daily Courier that Chief Dan Fraijo is leaving by "mutual agreement" effective Nov. 15.

Fraijo disagreed.

"Mutual? No," he said. "There's an agreement that when I was hired that said, at any given time, either side could give 30 days' notice and I would leave or could leave."

Biden: Fallen Arizona Hotshots heroes "long before we knew their names"

Fraijo oversaw the city's regular fire department and the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the nation's only specialized Hotshot crew run by a city. Nineteen of the crew's 20 members died June 30 in a wildfire in nearby Yarnell.

An investigative report by a team of national experts released last month found proper procedure was followed in the worst firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001. The report, however, found communications lapses, including a 33-minute gap in radio traffic from the Hotshots crew in the hour before they died. The investigation also revealed that an airtanker carrying flame retardant was hovering overhead as the firefighters died. It did not determine if the tragedy was avoidable.

The report provided the first minute-to-minute account of the fatal afternoon. The day went according to routine in the boulder-strewn mountains until the wind shifted around 4 p.m., pushing a wall of fire that had been receding from the hotshots all day back toward them.

After that, the command center lost track of the 19 men. The firefighters either ignored or did not receive weather warnings. They left the safety of a burned ridge and dropped into a densely vegetated valley surrounded by mountains, heading toward a ranch. The report states that they failed to perceive the "excessive risk" of repositioning to continue fighting the fire.

The command center believed the hotshots had decided to wait out the weather change in the safety zone. They did not find out the men were surrounded by flames and fighting for their lives until five minutes before they deployed their emergency shelters, which was more than a half hour after the weather warning was issued.

Unidentified members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Ariz., pose together in this undated photo provided by the City of Prescott. Some of the men in this photograph were among the 19 firefighters killed while battling an out-of-control wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday, June 30, 2013, according to Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years. City of Prescott/AP

McConnell said he met with Fraijo on Thursday and they discussed how Fraijo stepped in on an interim basis in May 2012 and the changes that followed, including his appointment as Prescott fire chief in February.

McConnell added that he and Fraijo "knew the time would come when the city would be seeking a more permanent fire chief."

Fraijo said that was news to him.

"That may be his intention," Fraijo told the Courier. "He did not have to tell me the reason, and I don't want to come across as angry, (but) permanent? Permanent to me was I had the job."

City officials didn't say why the decision was made. In the months since the tragedy, however, the Arizona Republic noted a rift between some city officials and the Fire Department had become apparent. In an earlier interview, Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall alluded to tension between city officials and the area's fire union.

Kuykendall would not answer detailed questions about Fraijo's exit Friday night, saying city officials would release information about it Monday.

Dan Bates, a Prescott firefighter who is also vice president of the Prescott chapter of the United Yavapai Firefighters Association, told the Republic the news was "horrific" and left the department "shell-shocked."

"The magnitude of losing 25 percent of our guys ... and a blow at this time for a chief that was so well supported and putting us in a direction ... it's awful."

Bates said city officials "looked at getting rid" of Fraijo last year.

"We made an appeal across the floor and all the guys wanted his leadership to continue. We talked with the council and they reversed that decision."