Suit seeks radio recordings from Yarnell fire that killed 19

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — A former fire crew superintendent has argued in a lawsuit that radio recordings could reportedly shed light on the fatal wildfire in Arizona that killed 19 Prescott hotshot crew members.

Former Payson Hotshot superintendent Fred Schoeffler filed the lawsuit in 2017, and seeks aircraft radio transmission recordings from a wildfire in Yarnell that killed 19 members of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots crew in 2013.

The legal dispute is over whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture adequately searched for the documents that Schoeffler asked for in a 2016 Freedom of Information Act request.

A three-justice panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments at a hearing in Phoenix, the Daily Courier reported Thursday.

Schoeffler sent a FOIA request to the Department’s Forest Service in 2016 seeking all voice recordings and written transcripts related to the fire, as well as communications “to and from any and all air resources and any and all Incident Management Team and any and all operational and ground personnel,” the lawsuit said.

It adds that Schoeffler “is certain that these air-to-ground records exist.”

Schoeffler's attorney David Richard Schwartz argues that the department knowingly hid records related to the deaths.

The Department of Agriculture responded that it had turned over the information to a state investigator and that the information had already been made public.

U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow ruled in 2018 that Schoeffler had not exhausted administrative appeals, and the case continued.

Judge Andrew Hurwitz told Schwartz that FOIA requires a reasonably adequate search be conducted, but “the fact that you’ve discovered a document that wasn’t produced in the search isn’t evidence that they didn’t conduct a reasonably adequate one.”

“The issue is not whether there might exist some other records possibly responsive to appellant’s FOIA request; the issue is whether the search for those records was adequate," department attorney Bill Solomon said.

Schwartz asked the court to reverse the lower court’s ruling and remand the case back for bench trial. Judge Hurwitz said the case had been submitted.