A brewing storm: How fire turned tragic for 19 men

The blaze had ignited two days earlier with a lightning strike along the Date Creek Mountains above the ranching community of Yarnell.

The slopes that surround Yarnell are laden with manzanita, evergreen, mountain mahogany and oak. Although next to national forestland that regularly has fire activity, the area had not burned in about 40 years, and it was deep into a drought, making it far more susceptible to fire.

Still, at first, officials determined the blaze was small, posing no immediate threat to Yarnell’s 700 residents.

About 10 a.m. June 29, a Saturday, the Arizona State Forestry Division called in a pair of air tankers, a helicopter, some fire engines and a couple of hand crews. By nightfall, the fire had scorched just 15 acres, though the local fire department warned residents: “Be on high alert if the wind changes direction.”

Overnight, the blaze grew to 200 acres, and by that Sunday morning, officials were organizing a larger command team to oversee firefighting efforts and calling in more personnel.

About 6 a.m., Darrell Willis, chief of the Prescott Fire Department’s Wildland Fire Division, was loading his truck with containers of eggs, sausage, potatoes and fruit for the crews when his phone rang. It was Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, based at Willis’s department.

“Hey, chief,” Marsh said. “We’re coming down to the fire.”

At 43, the North Carolina native was the oldest member of the Hotshot team, as well as its founder. The Granite Mountain group had begun as a fuels-mitigation unit in 2002, and within six years, it had joined the elite Hotshot community — the first such crew attached to a municipal department.

Marsh and Willis had worked together for years and were close friends as well as colleagues. Willis gave Marsh the rundown: Active fire. Lots of homes potentially at risk. “It’s one of those days,” he warned.

Then Willis ended the conversation the way he does anytime he’s speaking to a firefighter. “Be safe,” he told Marsh.

Joining the fight

By 9:30 a.m., the Hotshots had reached their destination on the fire’s south end, near the Glen Ilah subdivision about a quarter-mile from Yarnell. The area had already been bulldozed, so the crew used chain saws, axes and other tools to build a line between the blaze and Yarnell in case the winds changed and blew flames their way. Following standard procedure, they also mapped out an escape route.

Most of the fire activity had been restricted to the north end of the blaze. But in rugged, hilly terrain, like where the Hotshots were working, thunderstorm activity or downdrafts can cause winds to shift and flames to shoot in all directions, fire experts say.

In part, for that very reason, each crew always has at least one member serving as a lookout, stationed where he can watch the fire’s behavior and radio changes in conditions to the team.

That Sunday, Brendan McDonough was the eyes for the other 19 Hotshots — assigned to a nearby hillside to provide reports to the crew and keep watch on “trigger points,” locations that when reached or crossed by a fire dictate a move to safer ground.

As the Hotshots attacked the blaze from the ground and aircraft dropped retardant from above, Yarnell school board member Eric Lawton was returning home from a trip. At 2 p.m., he saw fire close to the elementary school and to a few homes, but Lawton still believed that Yarnell was safe. At the time, a weather station six miles away showed winds coming from the southwest at 10 mph.

Lawton even joked with some new residents watching the flames from their front yards. “Welcome to Yarnell,” he hollered facetiously.

Soon, Lawton’s casual mood turned dark when a neighbor reported that evacuations were underway. A thunderstorm was brewing, and the winds had shifted nearly 180 degrees — sending flames racing into Yarnell, where Lawton’s small, block home sat at the base of a hill.

“It was brown, then it was black. It then turned red, and the flames topped the hill,” Lawton recalled. “And I knew I had to get out.”

It was approaching 5 p.m., and the winds were coming from the north at 26 mph, with gusts up to 43 mph.

From his lookout post, McDonough saw the shift in the wind and the fire suddenly coming toward him. He radioed his crewmates, telling them that his trigger point had been reached and that he was heading for safe ground.

As a Prescott fire official would later recount, McDonough told his team to contact him on the radio if they needed anything. Then he rode away with a firefighter from another Hotshot team. When McDonough last looked back, flames had already burned over his lookout position.

At 4:47 p.m., Eric Marsh radioed to fire commanders, and his message was utterly terrifying. The 19 remaining Hotshots were deploying their emergency fire shelters — lightweight cocoons made of reflective material intended as a firefighter’s last resort.

Willis, the Prescott wildland fire chief, was in his pickup outside Yarnell, listening to the Hotshots’ tactical frequency, when he heard a garbled message from Marsh that he couldn’t quite make out. Then his cellphone rang.

“Did you hear that?” a supervisor asked him. All Willis could think was, “Not those guys.”

Then he began to pray.

Over and over again, the radio crackled with a constant, heartbreaking summons:

“Are you there, Granite Mountain? Are you there, Granite Mountain?”

Maybe, Willis thought, they’re just out of radio contact. Maybe, he hoped, his friends would walk out of the smoke at any minute.

Helicopters circled the area in an attempt to douse the flames. But the smoke was so thick, the crews could only guess at where to drop their loads.

After a while, Willis got back on the phone. He called his wife first, and then the head of the Prescott Fire Department. He asked them to start praying, too.

Waiting for answers

A week later, the fire burns on, although it is almost fully contained. It claimed property as well as lives, destroying more than 100 homes.

Autopsies of the 19 firefighters have been conducted, and an investigation into what happened has begun. But answers aren’t expected for months. For now, these communities and families can only grieve and begin planning for funerals.

Across from the Granite Mountain crew’s headquarters in downtown Prescott, a chain-link fence has become a shrine. Teddy bears, homemade banners, flower arrangements and fire department T-shirts from all over the country bake in the brutal summer sun.

On the Fourth of July, firefighter Nik Christian stopped by to pay his respects. The burly engine man, based in Flagstaff, Ariz., clambered up a small rise of river rock to clip one of his department’s T-shirts to the fence. The Hotshots, he said, were his heroes.

“It’s a whole different animal with them,” said Christian, whose crew was dispatched last Sunday to help fight the fire. “Very few people do exactly what they do.”

Around the corner, Jennifer Parks of Phoenix was trying to explain to her 6-year-old son, Jake, that this was not where the fallen firefighters were buried.

“No, honey,” she said gently. “This is where . . . people come to pay their respects.”

Jake’s 4-year-old brother, Zak, stopped at a circle of tiny toy firetrucks and pointed to one that looked like one of his own back home.

“I have one I want to bring,” Zak told his mother.

One of the family’s good friends is a fire chief in Phoenix. The boys have visited stations and gotten to climb on the engines.

“I want to be a fireman,” Zak said. Then, in the next breath, he added, “I want to be Batman.”

A few feet away, someone had placed a sign that read, “Real Heroes Don’t Wear Capes.” Zak’s mother smiled.

— Associated Press

 
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