Rare mix of events may have overtaken 19 firefighters, wildfire veterans say

Cory Moser was battling the Yarnell fire when word came that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been overrun by the flames. The Prescott Fire Department division chief sped to the scene, where he found a “moonscape” of bare ground, rocks cracked and chipped from the intense heat of the flames.

Moser, who wound up spending the night minding the bodies of close friends and co-workers, said the desolate scene is one clue that whatever killed the 19 elite members of his fire department may well turn out to have been an unexpected “black swan” event — a rare turn of the weather, conditions or luck that no one expected or could have prevented.

“For them to have been run over like that tells me that something spectacular happened, something really unusual,” Moser, 37, said Tuesday.

The investigation into the events that killed more firefighters than any incident since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has only just begun, and many fire professionals here are reluctant to speculate about what might have happened. But those who knew the Granite Mountain Hotshots, noting their superior physical conditioning and extensive training, and the ferocity of the blaze they were battling, said they believe the result may turn out to be, as some authorities have suggested, a sudden shift in the wind or something similar.

One of the few predictable things about wildfires, they said, is their unpredictability.

“The difference between a structure fire and wildland fire is that the wildland fire will come get you, as we found out in a terrible, terrible way the other day,” said Don Devendorf, another division chief with the Prescott Fire Department.

Only one Hotshot survived the blaze. Brendan McDonough, 21, escaped injury because he was serving as a lookout about a mile from where the rest of the crew was overrun, said Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department.

McDonough realized that a wind shift had made his position too dangerous and radioed that he was moving to safer ground, Ward said. His position was soon overrun by fire.

McDonough is “distraught,” “very emotional” and “confused” about why events unfolded as they did, Ward said.

Hundreds of firefighters from throughout the West continued Tuesday to battle the Yarnell fire, about 30 miles southwest of here, as the remaining 80 members of the Prescott Fire Department went about the awful business of preparing a memorial service for the dead and supporting their grieving families.

Aided by an increase in humidity, firefighters have made significant progress on the north and east sides of the Varnell blaze, Brad Pitassi, a spokesman for the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

By Tuesday evening, crews had contained 8 percent of the 8,400-acre fire, the Associated Press reported. It was the first time authorities had reported any containment of the flames.

The shelter provides breathable air and some heat and fire protection.;

“We’re not experiencing the fire activity we’ve seen in recent days,” Pitassi said.

Firefighters from around the area have streamed into town to take all of Prescott’s calls for the next few days, including auto accidents and emergency medical calls, Moser said, as the department’s members adjust to the staggering loss.

Moser and Devendorf said fires in buildings carry a degree of unpredictability themselves, and another firefighter said blazes caused by lightning strikes can sometimes follow wiring around a home and show up in unexpected places.

But wildland fires, which in the high desert of Arizona inevitably mean steep terrain, dry conditions and terrible heat, force firefighters to gauge the winds, the weather, the condition of the brush fueling the fire and even which way the hill faces. A south-facing hill absorbs more heat over time, Devendorf said.

“We can pretty much predict how something is going to behave inside four walls,” Moser added. “When you’re standing on the side of a mountain, sometimes weather just decides to do what it’s going to do.”

“It’s kind of like driving a car,” he said. “You can do everything right and it doesn’t mean the person on the other side isn’t going to cross the double yellow line and hit you. And it’s the same with fires.”

The Hotshots of his department, whom Devendorf likened to the elite Navy SEALS, trained extensively to stay safe under such conditions. They and other firefighters deployed lookouts to watch for sudden changes in the direction of the fire, maintained escape routes and safety zones and are assisted by meteorologists. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only crew in the United States that is part of a municipal fire department, also were in peak physical condition, able to run 10 miles in boots while wearing 40-pound packs. Fourteen of those killed were young men in their 20s who could handle the challenge of hiking in to a fire with chain saws and other equipment, although their leader, Eric Marsh, was keeping up at age 43.

And sometimes it just doesn’t matter how prepared you are, firefighters said. Winds can shift in a matter of seconds and can’t be outrun, Devendorf said. A column of smoke thousands of feet high can attract moisture and suddenly collapse, blasting its own winds in all directions. A developing storm 20 miles away can affect the scene of a fire.

“We’re learning,” said Devendorf, who met with some of the Hotshot crew members’ families after the men were killed. “Unfortunately, we learn through bad events.”

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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