Near the end of June, the weather patterns over Arizona shift. Wet air from Mexico flows in from the south, replacing the dry air that pushes in from the southwest during the spring. This is the summer monsoon, from the Arabic word mausim, for season: a shift in the wind. Thunderstorms gather along the Mogollon Rim, a 200-mile escarpment that stretches across central Arizona at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. As they build, the storms suck in desert heat and moist air and then move out over lower-lying areas, where they dump inches of rain.
Last summer, on Friday, June 28, one of the first thunderstorms of the season gathered along the Mogollon Rim, but because the season was young, the storm didn’t draw much moisture from the newly arriving Mexican air. Instead, it arose mainly as an unstable swirling mass of hot and cold air, a turbulent mix that generated 100-mph updrafts within the clouds.
From the Mogollon Rim, the storm moved west. As it did, its turbulence rammed and scraped ice crystals together in the storm clouds. Atoms in the clouds stripped electrons from one another and generated an electrical field—the perfect conditions for lightning. Most lightning jumps between or within clouds, but sometimes a tiny filament of charged particles streams down and meets with oppositely charged particles that are drawn up to them from an elevated point on the Earth’s surface: a tree on a mountaintop, for example. As soon as the gap is closed, a light switch is turned on, and the filament glows: electricity surges in massive amounts between the two points, creating a plasma channel that can heat the surrounding air to more than 50,000 degrees, five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
By late afternoon, the storm had drifted over the city of Prescott and toward the Weaver Mountains, which rise up from the plains of the Sonoran Desert, 70 miles northwest of Phoenix. With temperatures on the ground topping 105 degrees that day, most of the rain evaporated long before it could hit the ground, but the storm bombarded the area with lightning strikes. One bolt hit the top of 6,000-foot Yarnell Hill, in a boulder field thick with Sonoran scrub oak, cat’s claw, manzanita, and a few juniper trees.
If the lightning had struck a few weeks later, after monsoon rains had drenched the vegetation, little more than a bush or two would probably have caught fire. But extreme drought conditions had prevailed in the area, and the long days of summer had given the sun plenty of time to bake water from grasses, shrubs, and trees. Moreover, the area hadn’t burned for nearly 50 years, and the vegetation that had been growing there was a rich store of accumulated fuel. Trees and other plants capture the sun’s energy and combine it with water and carbon dioxide to form carbohydrate molecules, the building blocks of cellulose. Under everyday conditions, they keep that energy trapped inside them. But apply enough heat—with, say, a 50,000-degree bolt of lightning—and a chemical reaction will reorganize the cellulose molecules, breaking them down into flammable gases that will combust when mixed with air.
The lightning strike on Yarnell Hill caused combustion to occur, and the energy liberated in the process led some of the unburned soot particles released from the fuel to radiate heat and light—a fire’s flame. More unburned soot, along with gases and ash, rose into the air as a thin white column, seen by a few residents in the former gold-mining town of Yarnell, at the base of the hill.
Yarnell is a windy place. As the sun heats the area’s mountains, convection sucks in air from the Sonoran Desert, 1,700 feet below, bringing that steady, dry breeze in from the southwest. The breeze is a defining feature of the place, touted on a roadside billboard that greets visitors at the entrance to town: Yarnell. Where the desert breeze meets the mountain air.
A nice breeze and plenty of sunbaked fuel. This fire had what it needed to spread, which meant someone was going to have to try to put it out.
Two days later, in Boise, Idaho, Susie Stingley-Russell arrived for work at the National Interagency Coordination Center, where she served as the manager. Stingley-Russell was a veteran: she had worked in wildland fire for 35 years, including two stints on fire crews, and she now oversaw the divvying-up of resources for fires across the country. As usual, after settling in she flipped through the morning situation report. The previous 24 hours had brought 155 new fires nationwide, but just eight were considered large: that is, more than 100 acres for a forest fire, or 300 acres for shrub- or grassland. Nothing she saw in the report struck her as alarming.
The Coordination Center is housed at the National Interagency Fire Center, often just referred to as Boise, which occupies a hodgepodge of buildings on a 50-acre compound at the edge of the city’s airport. It’s an unusual place. Founded in 1965, it has no single director or manager, but instead coordinates the efforts and pools the resources of nine different federal agencies, among them the Forest Service, the Park Service, the Weather Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Together, the agencies are officially responsible for 700 million federal acres, but they also coordinate resources for fires on state and private land. Really, they keep eyes on every major forest fire and brush fire in the country.
“Nothing moves without this system knowing it,” says Chuck Wamack, the assistant manager of the Coordination Center, Boise’s war room, where dispatchers and analysts at four rows of desks can track every engine, air tanker, and helicopter assigned to wildfires. They can track all the firefighters, too, of whom there can be more than 20,000, including state crews and specially trained prisoner crews. At the top tier are some 450 smoke jumpers, who arrive by parachute, and 109 elite interagency “hotshot” crews: 20-person teams that can hump 45-pound packs deep into the backcountry and use chain saws and hand tools to cut and scrape fuel breaks, to contain a fire.
Boise classifies wildfires along a spectrum of severity and complexity. At the simple end are Type 5 incidents: a single burning tree, torched by a lightning strike, that a helicopter can douse with a bucket of water; or a runaway campfire that a couple of guys can knock down with shovels. As a fire gets bigger, or threatens houses or other sensitive areas, bigger management teams take over and apply more resources. Type 1 overhead teams, which handle the biggest and most complex fires, bring more than two dozen people together to work on operations, planning, finance, safety, and logistics. They work like a citizen militia, called away from their disparate day jobs when needed for specific roles. The Coordination Center oversees 16 Type 1 teams. They work primarily on fires but have also been used on hurricanes, floods, winter storms, and even the Columbia space-shuttle explosion. After the September 11 attacks, Boise sent four teams to New York and one to the Pentagon, to help manage the logistics of search and rescue.
Wamack likens the Coordination Center to a brokerage house that doesn’t own any assets but always knows who’s buying and selling. Say someone spots smoke rising on a mountainside in Wyoming and calls 911. The local interagency dispatch center (there are about 250 nationwide) sends out a fire engine or a helicopter with a few firefighters to assess the fire and knock it down if they can. If local dispatch can’t fill the need, the request kicks up to one of 11 regional hubs, called Geographic Area Coordination Centers. If dispatchers there can’t muster the necessary fire crews or equipment, they call Boise, which reaches out to the other 10 regional centers for airplanes, crews, or management teams. “This is triage,” says Wamack, who started working with wildland fire on an Alaska hotshot crew. “You have to fight all the battles to win the war,” he says. “And you’re going to have losses throughout that fight.”
Boise has a unit devoted to intelligence and predictive services. Its analysts study fuel conditions and weather patterns, to estimate the severity of coming seasons, but they also make short-term forecasts, so resources can be allocated on a daily and weekly basis. A storm in Southern California today might start a couple dozen fires, a phenomenon known as a lightning bust. But that same storm will then probably push on into Utah, Idaho, and Montana, and the forecasts help coordinators position gear there for the inevitable fires to come.
The Coordination Center can orchestrate the setup of a camp for 1,500 people near a big blaze in less than 24 hours: firefighting equipment, office supplies, radio networks, weather sensors and satellite feeds, catering trailers, showers, toilets. Much of this comes from a supply cache housed in 11 regional warehouses around the country, each a kind of Costco for firefighters, stocked with sleeping bags, tents, chain saws, shovels, hoses, water pumps, generators, flame-retardant clothing, hard hats, batteries. When a firefight is over, the gear is returned to the warehouses, where it is repaired, cleaned, and repackaged for the next fire.
Every day, fire directors at Boise meet to set the National Preparedness Level, which they determine by assessing the likelihood of new fires and the extent of resources already committed to existing fires. The scale ranges from Level 1 (not many fires, and plenty of resources) to Level 5 (fire everywhere, and almost every helicopter, fire engine, overhead team, and firefighter engaged). The country spent a week at Level 5 last year, in late August, with 37 federal and state incident-management teams and 19,900 firefighters deployed. In Northern California, more than 5,000 firefighters worked the Rim Fire, which scorched 250,000 acres near Yosemite National Park.
The national dispatch staff works seven days a week, two shifts a day, and the coordinating group meets twice a day during the height of the fire season to dole out and trade thin resources. On June 30, when Susie Stingley-Russell turned up for work at Boise, the directors had set the national level only at 3 (some resources still available to help regions battling a lot of fires). Only eight incident-management teams were deployed across the country. The Southwest Area, which includes Arizona, New Mexico, and the western half of Texas, was at Level 4: 18 new fires, six of them uncontained. But none of this was out of the ordinary. Stingley-Russell expected a relatively uneventful day.
Jesse Steed woke at 4:30 that morning, nearly 36 hours after the fire started on Yarnell Hill. In his home on the outskirts of Prescott, he pulled on green flame-retardant pants; thick-soled, steel-toed leather boots; and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words GRANITE MOUNTAIN INTERAGENCY HOTSHOT CREW. He slipped into the bedrooms of his son, Caden, 4 years old, and his daughter, Cambria, 3, and kissed them goodbye. He kissed his wife, Desiree, and told her he loved her. They both expected he would be home that night, or the next day at the latest.
Steed, 36 years old, was the crew captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, second in command. June had been a busy month for the hotshots. They had worked all but two days, first on the Thompson Ridge Fire, outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, and then on the Doce Fire, just a few miles northwest of Prescott, where they were based. On Friday, they had worked on a nearby fire deep into the night, and on Saturday they had headed right out again to take on another. At the end of the day, after he had returned home, Steed was sitting in his backyard with Desiree, enjoying the warm summer air, with Caden and Cambria playing on the swing set, when his boss, the crew’s superintendent, Eric Marsh, called with the next day’s assignment: a brush fire that was crawling along a rocky ridgeline above Yarnell.
Steed had started fighting wildfires in 2001, after leaving the Marine Corps, and had joined Granite Mountain in 2009. Nowhere else, he said, could he find the camaraderie he’d known in the military. From April through October, the hotshots worked and ate together, and slept next to one another in the dirt. The lowest-paid of them earned about $12 an hour, but they all might work 1,000 hours or more of overtime in a season, which meant that for months, the guys saw far more of one another than of their families. They hung out even away from the fire line, at family dinners and weekend barbecues. If they were lucky, when the call came from the station for them to head off for another two weeks to fight another fire, they’d have time to kiss their wives and girlfriends goodbye. But sometimes there wasn’t time for that.
“To our families and friends, we’re crazy,” Eric Marsh wrote in the spring of 2013, in a sort of Granite Mountain manifesto addressed to the town of Prescott. “Why do we want to be away from home so much, work such long hours, risk our lives, and sleep on the ground 100 nights a year? Simply, it’s the most fulfilling thing any of us have ever done.”
Marsh didn’t have children, and he often referred to the crew as his kids. Only six of the hotshots were full-time firefighters with benefits; the rest were seasonal employees, like many other hotshots around the country. Marsh wanted permanent positions for more of his men. “We are not nameless or faceless, we are not expendable,” he wrote in his manifesto. “We are not satisfied with mediocrity, we are not willing to accept being average, we are not quitters.”
The crew was a mix of firefighting veterans and rookies. Marsh, 43, was the oldest; the youngest was 21. Many had grown up around Prescott. They were 20 in all, of whom 10 were married and three more were engaged. Together they had 13 children, with another three on the way. Before joining Granite Mountain, one had been a rancher, another a Marine sniper, another a missionary. A few came from firefighting families. Marsh and Steed were among several making a career of wildland firefighting, but many just planned to spend a few seasons on the fire line before moving on to jobs with more-regular hours and less time away from home.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were born of a simple premise: the town of Prescott needed protection from wildfires. In June of 1990, the Dude Fire had torched 24,000 acres and killed six firefighters just outside Payson, a mountain town not far from Prescott. This troubled Prescott’s fire chief, Darrell Willis, who considered wildfire in the area an outsize threat, something far greater than he could handle with his department, which spent most of its time on medical calls, car accidents, and the occasional structure fire. A fast-moving wildfire in the area, he recognized, could burn scores of the homes he was responsible for protecting. So in the early 2000s, after a new National Fire Plan had begun funneling money to local communities for self-defense, Willis jumped at the opportunity to create a fuels-management crew, which worked with homeowners near the forest to thin trees and clear brush, grasses, and shrubs.
In 2004, the fuels crew qualified as a Type 2 firefighting crew, but Marsh, who had recently been brought on, had more-ambitious plans. He had worked several seasons on a National Forest hotshot crew, and figured Prescott could develop one itself. This would carry some prestige—no other city in America had its own hotshot crew; most were, and still are, attached to federal agencies. Instead of just clearing brush around town and waiting for a local fire, Marsh wanted his team to spend months honing their skills on the toughest fires across the country. He and his colleagues worked for years to build the team, which they named Granite Mountain, after a local peak. Their efforts paid off: in 2008, they passed their final certification and became a Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crew.
Marsh took the lead in hiring new recruits, and focused as much on character as on stamina. “When was the last time you lied?” he asked in every interview. “Tell me about that.” Truth telling was a guiding principle for Marsh. He had quit drinking more than a decade earlier, and being honest with himself and others had become a big part of his sobriety. When a young guy named Brendan McDonough interviewed for a job with Granite Mountain in 2011, he told Marsh that he’d been busted for underage drinking and breaking into a car, and had dabbled with drugs. But he added that he was ready to move past that and had been taking EMT and fire-science classes at a local college. Marsh offered him a job that day. He wanted good men, not just good firefighters.
The hotshot mission is straightforward and grueling: Cut fire lines—dirt paths a few feet wide through forest or brush—to halt a fire’s spread. A squad boss marks the route, sawyers with chain saws cut down brush and trees, and swampers pitch the debris far from the path. Other hotshots follow with hand tools and scrape the line down to mineral soil, cleared of anything that can burn. The crews might work 16-hour days for two weeks straight, with progress marked in 66-foot units called chains. In the thick tangles of chaparral common in central Arizona, the pace can be slow: six or seven chains an hour, in temperatures well above 100 degrees.
Needless to say, hotshots have to be fit. To join a crew, they typically have to run 1.5 miles in less than 10:35; they have to do 40 sit-ups and 25 push-ups each in under a minute; and they have to complete a three-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack in less than 45 minutes. But most of the Granite Mountain crew could do better. Jesse Steed made sure of that. At 6 foot 4 and well over 200 pounds, he liked to lead his crew on fast hikes lugging water jugs in the hills above Prescott, or to pull a deck of cards from his pocket and make his guys match the number on each card with push-ups until they’d gone through the deck. In the firehouse gym, a sign hanging above the barbells, kettlebells, and weight racks read STEED’S DOJO. At home, Steed would do push-ups with Caden and Cambria on his back, or do pull-ups with them hanging from him. He’d often run 20 miles or more once a week.
Steed’s wife, Desiree, had worried about him during his first few seasons as a hotshot. But in recent years she had stopped thinking about the danger. The job was risky. She knew that. But Steed was strong and skilled and careful, and he had always come home. So in the predawn dark on June 30—after he had kissed her goodbye, climbed into his white Dodge Ram 2500, and left for Station 7, in Prescott—Desiree went back to sleep. Jesse was just off to fight another fire.
Fire is nature’s housekeeper. Lightning ignites thousands of wildfires annually in the United States. If allowed to burn freely, these wildfires clear away small trees, brush, and accumulated leaves and needles on the forest floor, and in doing so, they help big trees thrive, by keeping in check plants that otherwise would compete for resources. Wildfire kills off insects that, left to their own devices, might ravage a forest. Even the deadly heat it generates serves a revitalizing purpose, triggering some trees and shrubs to release their seeds and reproduce.
For millions of years, wildfire did its job in North America, cleaning house. After people arrived on the continent, they began to use fire for their own purposes, such as clearing land for agriculture, but only early in the 20th century did Americans decide to genuinely reconsider their relationship with it. The trigger was an event known as the Big Blowup of 1910, when hundreds of fires in Washington, Montana, and Idaho converged into a giant blaze. The firestorm burned 3 million acres, incinerated several mountain towns, and flattened stands of trees. Legions of mostly untrained men tried to battle it, and at least 85 people died.
The Big Blowup incited a national urge to fight fire. But the government didn’t have much technology or know-how to apply to the effort, and through the mid-1930s, wildfires burned up to 50 million acres a year. Things began to change during the Great Depression, when the Civilian Conservation Corps deployed an army of unemployed men across the country to work on fire suppression and forest conservation. They would clear 97,000 miles of roads through remote areas to allow quicker access to fires, build 3,500 fire towers, fight thousands of forest fires, and plant 3 billion trees.
During this same time, the Forest Service decided that every wildfire in the country should be put out by the morning after it was reported. The country had the manpower to try. This new approach coincided with the onset of several cool, wet decades, which aided the effort: forests weren’t as dry, so they grew more and didn’t burn as often. Smoke jumpers joined the fight, first parachuting into a fire in 1940, and after World War II their ranks swelled with veterans who had made combat jumps across Europe. After the war ended, firefighters also had surplus military trucks and bulldozers at their disposal, and by the mid-’50s they were using helicopters and retired military airplanes to drop water and flame retardant on fires. The nation’s army of firefighters now consisted of ground troops, paratroopers, and bombers. And in 1965 that army got its Pentagon: the fire center in Boise.
It seemed like a great success story: Americans were fighting fire, just as they had fought their military enemies, and they were winning. But when wildfires don’t burn regularly, fuels simply accumulate, and bigger fires become inevitable—something policy makers took decades to recognize. “What they didn’t see at the time,” says Don Falk, a forest-and-fire ecologist at the University of Arizona, “is that fire is inevitable. You can defer it, but it’s a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later scenario. There’s no fire-free scenario.”
We’re paying for that blindness now. Across the West, enormous swaths of forest and shrubland are loaded with decades’ worth of built-up fuel. Climate change is compounding the problem: years of drought are turning much of that fuel into tinder; fire season is starting earlier and ending later; bugs are surviving warmer winters and killing vast numbers of trees, increasing the risk that fires will start and spread; and some forests destroyed by fire aren’t growing back, because faster-growing shrub and grass species are taking over before new trees can establish themselves. What it all means is that when fires start, they burn hotter and more destructively than ever before, often killing trees that would have survived less-intense heat. Fires larger than 100,000 acres used to be an anomaly, but not anymore: eight burned in the 2013 fire season alone. Had such conditions existed a thousand years ago, we’d probably have no great forests in the western United States today.
Forest managers several decades ago started to rethink the strategy of keeping fires out of forests. They began to set their own fires, called prescribed burns, to reduce fuel loads and prevent future out-of-control blazes. They even began letting a few wildfires burn on their own when weather conditions were right, and when lives and property weren’t threatened. Yet dialing back fire suppression, while sensible on paper, is tricky in practice. Fires regulate themselves when they burn without interference. But they can’t burn now the way they would have a couple of centuries ago, or even a couple of decades ago, because today 44 million homes are spread across what’s known as the wildland-urban interface.
This year, more than 50,000 wildfires—sparked by lightning, tossed cigarettes, runaway campfires, the occasional arsonist’s match, and even rocks scraping together in a landslide—will rage through forests and shrublands across America. Legions of firefighters will fly, drive, and march to do battle with them. For the most part, the firefighters will win, controlling up to 98 percent of the fires within 24 hours. But the fires that make up the other 2 percent—like the one that started burning in the brush above Yarnell on June 28—are a tougher fight.
After the initial lightning strike near Yarnell, several residents reported seeing the wispy column of smoke rising from the top of Yarnell Hill. A pilot working a different blaze in the area flew over the fire an hour and a half after the strike to investigate; he estimated that it covered less than an acre and was mostly burned out. With no structures threatened and what seemed a low probability of its spreading, the fire was classified as Type 4. Russ Shumate, a state forestry employee who lives near Prescott, was named the on-scene incident commander. He didn’t consider the fire a grave concern, and chose not to make the risky move of sending firefighters up into the steep boulder field to fight it that night.
By the next morning, Saturday, the fire had spread across about two acres, and Shumate devised a plan of attack. A rocky ridge naturally checked the fire’s spread on its north side. Small air tankers dumped retardant on the south and west sides, to douse the flames and to prevent unburned fuel from catching fire, and a helicopter dropped off seven firefighters by a ridge to the east, along a narrow dirt road that skirted the hill, where they began to cut fire line. The fire seemed buttoned up. But in the late afternoon, with air temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, light winds from the west and southwest swept over the mountains and pushed flames across the dirt road, in what firefighters call a slop-over. By now 13 firefighters were cutting line up on the hill, but with 20-mph gusts driving the flames onto thick beds of dry fuel, they couldn’t catch the blaze, which rapidly spread across 100 acres.
This ratcheted up the threat level considerably. If the fire came down from the hills, it could threaten Yarnell, two and a half miles to the east. Already, it was creeping toward Peeples Valley, a town of about 400, four miles north of Yarnell. To help contain the fire, Shumate called the state dispatch center and requested a Type 2 management team, three hotshot crews, and several air tankers and helicopters for the next morning. At about 10:30 p.m., he called Darrell Willis, who was now Prescott’s wildland fire chief, and sent him north to Peeples Valley, to protect homes in the fire’s expected path. The fire was still a mile and a half from the houses there, but flames were glowing high in the hills, and Willis knew that the fire would push hard in the morning, as the temperatures climbed and the winds picked up.
Willis set to work. He had never been to the Peeples Valley area, but some of the men on the five engines assigned to him had. Through the night, they scouted the roads and sketched out maps of vulnerable structures. The most threatened area seemed to be a cluster of buildings called the Double Bar A Ranch, surrounded by grass and six-to-eight-foot manzanita and oak trees. If the fire pushed past there, it could burn dozens more homes in the main neighborhood, a mile north.
The outlook wasn’t any better in Yarnell. If the fire shifted east, it could burn into town and destroy hundreds of homes. The firefighters assigned to the area, however, deemed much of it indefensible, including the community of Glen Ilah, where a tangle of roads wound through fields of enormous granite boulders and patches of dense shrubs. Few of the homeowners had cleared vegetation far enough from their homes to do much good.
On Sunday, not long after she arrived for work at Boise, Susie Stingley-Russell began to hear more about the Yarnell Hill fire. It had been small the day before, just a couple of acres, barely on Boise’s radar. But it had escaped the initial attack, had grown throughout the evening and morning, and was now pushing through drought-parched shrubland toward scores of houses. By 11 a.m., the fire had grown to 1,500 acres, and Boise began to pay closer attention. The Southwest Coordination Center, in Albuquerque, assigned both of the country’s Very Large Air Tankers—converted DC‑10 jetliners that can dump 11,700 gallons of flame retardant in a single pass—to fight the fire, along with several smaller planes and helicopters. The Type 2 management team Shumate had requested the night before took over the fire, but the team members soon recognized that it was already growing beyond their capabilities. Hundreds of homes were now threatened, and the weather and fuel conditions meant that it would spread fast. So in the early afternoon, the incident commander at Yarnell requested a Type 1 overhead team—a very quick escalation. The Southwest Coordination Center began looking around nationally for more hotshot crews to send to Yarnell.
The fire raged on, and in the mid-afternoon the authorities in Albuquerque sent a request to Boise for six Large Air Tankers, smaller than the massive DC‑10s already assigned to the fire. This put Stingley-Russell in a tough spot. If Albuquerque was asking for that many tankers, the situation must be dire. Half of the nation’s available air-tanker fleet had already been assigned to Yarnell. If too many resources were allocated to that one fire, others might grow unchecked. And sending extra tankers to Yarnell probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway, because retardant often isn’t much good against a fire pushing hard across a landscape loaded with dry fuel.
Stingley-Russell knew that. Boise couldn’t give Albuquerque the tankers.
Earlier that morning, in Prescott, with the sun rising into a clear sky, the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots piled into their two hulking white F-750 crew trucks and began snaking their way through the Bradshaw Mountains to Yarnell. It’s a small town of about 650, with modest houses, an elementary school, a grocery store, four churches, three restaurants, and a few shops spread along both sides of the highway.
As the hotshots pulled into the Yarnell fire station, they saw flames licking through brush on the ridge that paralleled the highway, three miles to the west. Even as it entered its third day, the fire didn’t look like much, but they didn’t underestimate the danger: fatalities usually happen on small fires, or on seemingly quiet corners of larger fires. And they knew the many ways besides burning to death that a firefighter could die: under falling boulders and trees, in vehicle rollovers, in helicopter crashes, from heart attacks. The crew had suffered only minor injuries over the years—twisted ankles, heat exhaustion, a snakebite—but they had studied the big fatal fires and had worked the Station Fire, in California, which had killed two men.
Their families often reminded them of the potential risks. The last time Grant McKee had spoken to his mother, Marcia, she’d told him to be careful. “What are the odds of me dying in a fire?,” he’d responded. “Think about it, Mom.” Still, she insisted: be careful. To reassure her, he would call her from the fire line and leave voice mails. “Hey, Mom,” he said in one. “It’s me, just calling to let you know everything is okay. I’m safe.” McKee, 21, was one of four rookies on Granite Mountain, where he had joined his cousin, Robert Caldwell, a veteran firefighter and one of the crew’s three squad bosses.
In the fire station, which was being used as a temporary incident command post, Todd Abel, one of the operations section chiefs working on the fire, talked with Eric Marsh and gave him Granite Mountain’s task for the day: establish an anchor point on the fire’s southern end, and then clear fuel along the eastern flank, to keep the fire from creeping down into Yarnell. This was a bread-and-butter job for the hotshots, comparable to an infantry platoon’s driving the enemy from a patch of ground and then holding it.
On an iPad, Marsh examined a Google Map of the area his crew would be working. The hotshots then drove toward the mountain with Gary Cordes, who was organizing structure protection for Yarnell. Cordes pointed out the Boulder Springs Ranch, west of the other houses, at the foot of the mountain, and told them it was a “bombproof” safety zone. The owners had cleared brush far enough from the house and outbuildings to protect themselves from even a raging fire. “Of course,” Cordes added, “you also have the black”—a couple-hundred-acre patch that had already burned near where the hotshots would be working. If the fire turned on them, they could always retreat there.
The crew parked along a dirt road called Sesame Street, halfway between the town and the ridge. Before heading up to the fire line, many of the hotshots called or texted their wives or girlfriends and family members, a standard practice that Marsh encouraged. Some took their phones with them; others left their phones in the trucks. Later that day, Desiree Steed would see that she’d missed a call from Jesse in the morning, but she didn’t bother calling back: he never took his phone with him on the job.
The hotshots loaded up with their packs, water, hand tools, and chain saws. Then they set off single file, up the rocky and brush-choked hillside, to find their fire.
By mid-morning on Sunday, the fire had come down from the hills and was pulsing northeast on a mile-wide front, with flames leaping 30 to 40 feet in the air. Darrell Willis, in Peeples Valley, hadn’t expected to see fire that aggressive for several more hours. Two DC‑10 retardant drops barely slowed the fire. Willis’s firefighters had already cut back vegetation around the Double Bar A Ranch and set up sprinklers on roofs to keep the buildings doused with water. With the fire advancing on them fast, they set a backfire along a trail south of the ranch. They did so to burn up fuel between the seven buildings and the fire front, now two miles wide, which reached the ranch at about 2 p.m. and started to flank the crews. The fire would end up burning four of the seven buildings, but the firefighters’ work would save the main house, a small win. With the fire bearing down on them, they retreated to a road a quarter mile north and lit a backfire along the road, to keep the fire from sweeping up into the homes in the Model Creek subdivision, at the southern edge of the valley.
Many of the residents in Model Creek had already left town, but two of them, Kelly and Phyllis Scott, were still there. They’d spent the afternoon on their porch watching the fire creep toward their house, pushed by a steady breeze from the southwest: the same constant cooling breeze that had drawn them to the area 17 years ago. The fire had been relatively small that morning, but by mid-afternoon it had ballooned to more than 2,500 acres and was headed their way. The police had called a few times and told Kelly to be ready to evacuate. He’d taken those warnings seriously: the neighborhood had only one main road out, and he and Phyllis both knew that if the fire crossed it, they’d be trapped. Kelly had loaded their van with some belongings, but even so, he wasn’t yet ready to go. A thunderstorm was moving in from Prescott, and he knew that it would bring high winds from the northeast that might check the fire’s advance. The wind sometimes blew so hard during storms that it ripped shingles from their roof. For a while, the storm seemed worth waiting for, but at about 4 o’clock, with a curtain of fire still creeping toward them, Kelly decided it was time to go. But then the miraculous happened: as he was heading across his yard to turn off the gas to his generator, so that it wouldn’t explode when the fire came through, the promised winds finally did rush in.
For the Scotts (who still evacuated), the winds were a godsend: they stopped the fire from reaching the house. But the fire now spelled danger for others. What had been its back edge and southeastern flank now became its front, which began to advance rapidly toward Yarnell, where some residents still hadn’t received a call from emergency dispatchers to evacuate. They wouldn’t find out about the fire until they saw flames in their backyards.
That Sunday morning, long before dawn, two local residents who did know about the fire—Sonny “Tex” Gilligan and Joy Collura—had hiked into the hills to see it up close. They have been hiking partners for the past few years, and they spend much of their time exploring the Arizona backcountry. That morning they skirted the base of Yarnell Hill and climbed up along the north side of a U-shaped bowl behind the Boulder Springs Ranch, the site the hotshots would be told was a bombproof safety zone. At about 8:30, high on the hill, they saw a firefighter in green pants, a long-sleeved yellow shirt, and a red hard hat picking his way up through the brush toward the fire. They wouldn’t realize it until several days later, but this was Eric Marsh, the Granite Mountain crew superintendent, scouting a route and refining a plan of attack.
“What’s the best way up?” he asked.
“Just use the old jeep trail,” Gilligan said, and pointed to a narrow path that ran along the hill. He and Collura continued around the hill toward the fire. An hour later, they ran into Marsh again and chatted with him for a few minutes. “You guys are going to have to get out of here soon,” he said. As they descended, they met a line of sweat-soaked firefighters trudging up the hill carrying saws, hand tools, and heavy packs. The temperature was already above 90, and many of the men looked exhausted. Collura took a picture of them after they’d passed. She and Gilligan then sat along the jeep trail for the next three hours and watched them work.
Brendan McDonough, the young hotshot Marsh had hired despite his past troubles with the law, had been out sick the previous two days, and Marsh wanted to make sure he was ready for a long day cutting line in the sun. He sent McDonough, known to everybody on the crew as Donut, and a few other hotshots to anchor the fire, a first step in keeping it from creeping down the hill toward Yarnell. They started out in a burned area at the southwest corner of the fire, just over the spine of the mountain. In areas where the fire still smoldered, they cut and scraped away unburned fuel, following the fire’s perimeter around the south end and up the eastern edge.
A little farther north, other Granite Mountain Hotshots cleared brush along a dirt road, just below the edge of the burned area. At about 11:30, they lit a fire on the upslope side, using small drip torches and flares, launching what’s called an indirect attack, in which vegetation is burned between a cleared line and the main fire, to halt the fire’s spread by stealing its fuel. But just after they got their fire going, a small air tanker flew overhead and dumped two loads of retardant on it, dousing the flames. This frustrated Marsh, who complained to the air crew directing the tanker drops, but resumed a direct attack, which meant working along the fire’s edge to clear fuel by hand.
Another crew, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, was working half a mile away, at the base of the hill, using a bulldozer to scrape a wide fire line along an east-west dirt trail. In the late morning, Marsh and Jesse Steed met on the hillside with Brian Frisby, the Blue Ridge superintendent, and Rogers Trueheart Brown, the crew captain, and tried to figure out a plan for connecting Granite Mountain’s fire line to Blue Ridge’s.
Radio problems had already hampered communications throughout the morning, and the leaders from each hotshot crew now discussed the seeming lack of strategy on the south end of the fire. Todd Abel, an operations chief for the Yarnell fire, had put Marsh in charge of Division Alpha, which was the southwest section of the fire, that morning, but so far Granite Mountain was the only crew under him. The Blue Ridge Hotshots fell under Division Zulu—the area just north of Granite Mountain’s—but their supervisor hadn’t shown up on the fire line yet. Marsh would stick to the original plan: anchor and flank the fire.
The Granite Mountain crew cut more line along the fire, and Marsh sent McDonough to a rocky knoll at the base of the hills, about half a mile northeast, to serve as a lookout. He’d keep an eye on the fire from there, and if the flames shifted toward the crew, he’d warn them, and they could take their escape route to a safety zone. This was standard procedure, part of a basic safety system known as LCES, for Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones. If you can establish and maintain this procedure, the theory goes, you should be able to avoid fatal entrapments. McDonough picked a spot several hundred yards to the north as his own trigger point for retreat. If the fire reached there, he’d call up a warning and pull back, or find a safer lookout spot.
As everybody worked, puffy cumulus clouds were building far to the northeast, beyond Prescott, a harbinger of thunderstorms, and a warning sign for firefighters. An operations chief asked Marsh whether he had seen the clouds, and Marsh told him he would keep an eye on the weather.
By early afternoon, the base of the thunderstorms to the northeast hung at 20,000 feet. Prescott sits at about 5,200 feet, and 15,000 feet of dry air separated the town from the clouds. Rain was falling, but most of the drops were evaporating before they hit the ground, creating a phenomenon known as a virga, which looks like ragged curtains hanging from the clouds. As the raindrops in a virga evaporate, the surrounding air cools and is weighed down by the infusion of moisture, which causes the air to drop and spread out along the ground like a ripple of water from a pebble dropped in a pond. This wave of heavy air, called an outflow boundary, can wreak havoc when it meets a wildfire.
For Type 1 fires, an on-site meteorologist watches the radar and calls the weather play by play. But for Yarnell, at that point a small but escalating fire, the National Weather Service office in Flagstaff, Arizona, was pushing updates to Byron Kimball, a fire-behavior analyst who had arrived at the Yarnell fire that morning. By early afternoon, the storms had gathered into a loose 100-mile-long chain that stretched from the north to the east of Yarnell. At 2 o’clock, the National Weather Service sent an update warning that the storms could produce 35-to-45-mph winds. Kimball alerted the Yarnell management team, but these winds didn’t materialize right away. Instead, convective winds from the southwest kept driving the fire toward Peeples Valley. At 3:26, the Flagstaff weather office sent another update: an outflow boundary from a thunderstorm near Prescott was moving toward Yarnell from the northeast, with winds of 40 to 50 mph.
The wind that had blown all day from the southwest now shifted 90 degrees and started coming in from the west and northwest. The outflow boundary was moving closer, causing a messy collision of winds from the southwest and northeast that themselves were running into warm air being pulled up into the distant thunderstorms. This was the start of the wind shift that saved Kelly and Phyllis Scott’s home, and others, in Peeples Valley. What had been the southeast flank of the fire was now a three-mile-wide flaming front charging toward Yarnell. The wind threw embers in front of the flames, starting spot fires that helped the main blaze leapfrog its way forward. A pilot flying air support saw this happening, radioed Marsh, and told him the fire could reach Yarnell in an hour or two.
At about 3:50, the advancing fire hit the trigger point that Brendan McDonough, the lookout, had chosen. He radioed Jesse Steed, who was with the rest of the Granite Mountain crew up on the hillside, digging fire line, and told him he was pulling back. “Okay, cool,” Steed responded. McDonough hiked south, through the brush, to a clearing along the dirt road that the hotshots had walked in on that morning. “I’ve got eyes on you and the fire,” Steed told McDonough as he reached the clearing, “and it’s making a good push.”
McDonough looked north, where he saw the fire burning toward the lookout point he had just abandoned. As he considered his next move, Frisby, the Blue Ridge Hotshot superintendent, arrived on an off-road vehicle and picked him up. With some of the other Blue Ridge Hotshots, McDonough moved Granite Mountain’s trucks up the bulldozer line, out of the fire’s path. As the fire continued to advance, they moved them again to the Ranch House Restaurant, in Yarnell, the rallying point for the retreating fire crews.
At the time the fire was reaching McDonough’s trigger point, Todd Abel radioed Marsh to ask whether he had gotten the second weather update, and whether his crew was in a good spot. “The winds are getting squirrelly up here,” Marsh responded. He told Abel that the crew was safe, in the black, and that he was making his way down from the top. “Okay, copy,” Abel said. “Just keep me updated—uh, you know, you guys hunker and be safe, and then we’ll get some air support down there ASAP.”
Division supervisors enjoy autonomy on the fire line; incident commanders and section chiefs stationed at other locations, with very different views of the fire, will often give wide latitude to a supervisor like Marsh, which helps explain why some others on the fire did not know the Granite Mountain crew’s precise location. Abel himself had other immediate problems to address. Firefighters trying to protect Yarnell had set a series of three trigger points, starting with a small ridge a mile north of town, and the fire was blasting through them far faster than expected. Firefighters had started evacuating Yarnell, including the Glen Ilah subdivision, but Abel hadn’t yet accounted for all of the fire crews now pulling back, and many people were still inside homes about to be overrun by flames.
A few minutes after Abel radioed Marsh, another operations chief, Paul Musser, called Granite Mountain and asked whether they could spare any resources for Yarnell. Either Marsh or Steed said they could not, and suggested that Musser ask the Blue Ridge Hotshots, who were closer to Yarnell. A snippet of video recorded a few minutes later by the hotshot Chris MacKenzie, of Granite Mountain, captures a radio conversation between Steed and Marsh, who had been away from the crew scouting the fire for much of the day. “I knew this was coming when I called you and asked what your comfort level was,” Marsh says. “I could just feel it, you know?” It’s unclear whether Marsh was talking about the wind shift that was now driving the fire hard to the southeast, or the request for help in Yarnell.
In a burned-over area near the ridgeline, the Granite Mountain Hotshots sat on boulders and watched the long line of fire blaze across the valley. They saw residents driving out of the neighborhoods and onto the highway. Scott Norris, a sawyer in his fifth season as a hotshot, texted his mother a picture. “This thing is running at Yarnell!!!” he wrote.
The air-support plane left at about this time, because the pilot had reached his maximum allowed flying time. A second plane in the area, Bravo 33, had been coordinating retardant drops, but its three-man crew now became responsible for monitoring the fire from the air in addition to guiding air tankers to their drop zones. The crew didn’t know the location of Granite Mountain, but it overheard Marsh saying over the radio that he was moving down an escape route.
“I heard a crew in a safety zone,” Bravo 33 said to Abel. “Do we need to call a time-out?” By that he meant a pause in operations, to allow people to focus briefly on the hotshots’ location and intentions.
“No, they’re in a good place,” Abel responded. “They’re safe, and it’s Granite Mountain.”
“Is everything okay?,” Bravo 33 asked Marsh a few minutes later.
“Yeah,” Marsh said. “We’re just moving.”
The hotshots had walked southeast along a dirt road and cut left onto a rocky spur overlooking Yarnell. The fire was still pushing hard into town. They turned right and started down into a box canyon, heading for Boulder Springs Ranch, their safety zone. With a steep slope on their left, they lost sight of the fire, breaking an important firefighting rule, but they felt okay with this: they were moving parallel to the flames, which were more than half a mile away.
At 4:30, the outflow boundary, which had reached Peeples Valley shortly after 4 o’clock, rolled down across the valley from the northeast and reached the southern edge of the fire. Again the fire changed direction, this time moving south and southwest. The fire was now headed directly toward the hotshots, but they couldn’t see this. The air in front of them still looked clear, and they could see the ranch just beyond the mouth of the canyon.
At 4:37, Bravo 33 flew a west-to-east path to line up a retardant drop for one of the DC-10 air tankers, a final effort to prevent the fire from reaching Yarnell. As Bravo 33 passed over the box canyon, Marsh radioed up to the crew. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” he said. “That’s where we want the retardant.”
By the time the plane came around again to guide the air tanker on its run, the wind had shifted, and the enormous column of smoke that had been leaning east now shifted south across Yarnell and obscured the area. The air tanker did not make its drop.
Driven by the outflow winds from the thunderstorm, the fire blasted up the north side of the rocky spur to the left of the hotshots. This, too, they couldn’t see. In a minute or two the fire would spill over that spur like a breaking wave. A second head of fire bumped left at the spur and swept into the canyon’s mouth. Now, all of a sudden, the hotshots could see and hear the fire—chugging and snapping and growling toward them as it devoured the manzanita and cactus and oak in its path.
A panicked voice, belonging to one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, came on the radio. “Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots. We are in front of the flaming front!”
This was the first moment anyone working the fire knew that Granite Mountain was in trouble. Another crew, working a different part of the fire, then heard a few minutes of cryptic and harrowing radio transmissions, which were captured on a helmet camera belonging to one member of that crew.
“Is Granite Mountain still in there?” one of the crew asked as the sky darkened. Embers and ash from the advancing fire were floating down around him.
“Well, they’re in a safety zone,” another crew member responded. “In the black.”
A transmission from Granite Mountain came over the air. “Air attack, Granite Mountain 7. How do you copy me?”
Chain saws were audible in the background.
“I hear saws running,” a firefighter said. “That’s not good.”
“Not when they’re in a safety zone,” a colleague said.
“Air attack!” came another transmission. “Granite Mountain 7!”
“This ain’t good,” a firefighter said.
“No, he’s screaming.”
Out in the box canyon, Marsh hastily assessed his situation. The fire had surprised him and his men with both its speed and ferocity. They couldn’t scramble back up the rocky slope they had just walked down. They’d never make it. They had only one option left. Marsh radioed up to Bravo 33 and laid out his plan. “Okay,” he said, his voice calm. “I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots. Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site, and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush. And I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh—the shelters.”
Fire shelters are the final defense against the unexpected: individual silver cocoons with an outer layer of aluminum foil bonded to woven silica cloth, and an inner layer of foil laminated to fiberglass cloth. Together the layers can deflect up to 95 percent of a fire’s radiant heat. The shelters aren’t nearly as good, though, at withstanding the convective heat from hot gases, or direct contact with flame. At 500 degrees, they start to delaminate. At about 1,200 degrees, the foil starts to melt; at 1,400 degrees, the fiberglass starts to break down; and at 2,200 degrees, the silica breaks down. But well before a shelter breaks down, the temperatures inside it have probably already risen to fatal levels. Human beings can breathe air up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, but only for a very short time. Most firefighters killed in burnovers die not from burns but from the superheated air. A single breath can cause suffocation.
Firefighters started using fire shelters in the 1960s, and they’ve been mandatory in this country since 1977. The National Interagency Fire Center estimates that shelters have saved some 300 lives and have prevented serious burns to as many firefighters. Not everybody likes them, however: Canada and Australia have both stopped using them, fearing that they give firefighters a false sense of confidence and may encourage them to expose themselves to risky situations.
The success of fire shelters often depends on where they’re deployed, and on the intensity of the fire. The Granite Mountain Hotshots could not have been in a worse place for deploying their shelters: they were walled in on three sides by rising slopes that would funnel and pull the fire, and surrounded by a six-foot-high tangle of very dry fuel.
When Marsh saw the fire turn the corner into the bowl, the crew had maybe three or four minutes until the flames would reach them. They picked an area where the vegetation wasn’t as dense and started clearing a spot for their shelters, between two shallow troughs that carry runoff into Yarnell. This was the point at which Marsh radioed his plans, with chain saws audible in the background. His sawyers cut down gamble oak and manzanita, to give the crew at least a small area free of fuels where they could lie down. Other hotshots dragged the branches away from the clearing and lit fires at the perimeter to burn off more fuels and increase the distance between themselves and the main fire when it arrived. In the final moments before the fire closed in, as they had been trained to do, they began to toss all their equipment outside the perimeter of the clearing, especially combustible items such as torches and chain-saw gas and oil. But the fire roared in too fast for them to finish the job. Later, fire-behavior analysis would suggest that it crossed the last 100 yards toward them in 19 seconds, burning at about 2,000 degrees.
A well-trained firefighter needs about 20 seconds to shake out his shelter and climb into it. Many of the hotshots made it into their shelters before the fire reached them, but even they had no chance of surviving what was about to hit them. The flames racing toward them measured some 70 feet high, and 50-mph winds laid them nearly flat against the ground, which greatly accelerated the preheating and lighting of fuels, and pushed a furnace blast of superheated gas toward the hotshots. As the fire funneled into the canyon, convective forces also pulled it up the slopes, even as it was being driven from behind by the outflow boundary.
Other firefighters in the area, aware that the Granite Mountain crew was in trouble, could only stand by helplessly. Some who had pulled back to the parking lot of the Ranch House Restaurant, just off the highway, watched the fire surge through the brush and saw a rolling, twisting column of brown and black smoke. Flames crested the ridge and leaped 150 feet into the air. Crews listening to their radios heard the click of hand mics being keyed a few times, but no voices.
A Bravo 33 crew member tried radioing Marsh. “I need you to pay attention,” he said, “and tell me when you hear the aircraft, okay? Cause it’s gonna be a little tough for us to see you.” The plane circled over the fire, and its crew radioed the hotshots seven times, with no response. As Bravo 33 searched for the hotshots, a DC-10 air tanker flew in a holding pattern at the edge of the enormous smoke column, ready to dump 11,000 gallons of retardant on the hotshots.
At the restaurant, firefighters organized a medical team with five paramedics and three emergency medical technicians, who waited by their trucks for the crew’s location.
Just after 5 o’clock, Brian Frisby, the Blue Ridge Hotshots superintendent, and Rogers Trueheart Brown, the crew captain, left the parking lot on an all-terrain vehicle and drove down roads that run west toward the mountains. A curtain of fire blocked their path. Propane tanks outside homes exploded, shooting roiling plumes of flame into the smoke-darkened sky. Some residents still hadn’t evacuated, and the hotshots shouted at them to leave. The pair met up with firefighters on two more off-road vehicles, and they discussed options. Trees had fallen across the road, power lines hung low, and the propane-tank explosions continued, but they figured they’d be safe if they could reach the black just beyond the fire. “Fuck it,” a Blue Ridge hotshot said. “Let’s go for it.”
The three vehicles punched through the flames, turned onto the line that Blue Ridge’s bulldozer had cut, and climbed up the jeep trail to where Granite Mountain had been working. They found some burned equipment left on the hillside Saturday, but no sign of the hotshots.
The crew of Ranger 58, an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter, had heard the hotshots’ first distress calls and wanted to launch, but the fire was still too hot, and the smoke too thick. The helicopter finally took off at 5:16, 35 minutes after Marsh’s last transmission, and the team searched the west side of the fire for nearly an hour, along the ridge where Granite Mountain had been working. Through the lingering smoke, the crew eventually saw the ranch, which Marsh had mentioned as his destination—and about half a mile to its west they saw a cluster of fire shelters.
The helicopter landed near the ranch. Eric Tarr, a medic on the flight, shouldered an aid bag and hiked quickly up toward the shelters, through what firefighters call a moonscape: an area in which almost everything has been incinerated. The baked ground crunched underfoot. A few charred manzanita and oak branches smoldered. Platter-size chunks of granite flaked off heat-shattered boulders. The area was so hot that Tarr had to keep a water tube in his mouth to cool the air he was breathing. As he neared the shelters, he heard voices. He shouted out but got no response, and soon he realized what he’d been hearing: radio transmissions picked up by Granite Mountain handhelds, which had somehow survived the fire.
When Tarr reached the shelters, he was greeted by an awful sight. The hotshots all lay in an area 24 feet by 30 feet, roughly in a horseshoe shape, close enough together that each could touch the man next to him. They had shown remarkable discipline and cohesion. None had split off or tried to outrun the flames. Seven had fully deployed their shelters. The rest were only partially covered, perhaps because they hadn’t had enough time before the wave of hot gases and fire arrived, or perhaps because the fire and its winds had melted and ripped away the thin fabric during the burnover, or perhaps because they simply hadn’t been able to endure the heat and had tried to break free. Five men lay on their backs. Twelve lay with their feet pointed to the northeast, the direction from which the flames had come. Patches of each hotshot’s flame-retardant clothing had been charred or burned away: something that can only start happening at 824 degrees, nearly three times the heat a human being can survive.
Tarr squatted next to a hotshot ensconced in a shelter, gently rolled him onto his back, and checked for signs of life. Nothing. He rolled him back. Moving from shelter to shelter, he repeated the grim task, and then called up the final tally on the radio: 19 dead.
That left only one Granite Mountain hotshot: the lookout, Brendan McDonough, who had pulled back with the Blue Ridge Hotshots to the Ranch House Restaurant. After learning what had happened to his team, McDonough sat alone in one of the Granite Mountain trucks. Many of the phones that the crew had left in the trucks began buzzing and chiming with calls from worried friends and family. He couldn’t bear to hear the calls, and had to leave the truck.
That night, firefighters from Prescott and the Forest Service stood vigil near the Boulder Springs Ranch. Scores of homes in Yarnell and Glen Ilah still burned in the distance.
The next morning, Desiree Steed, Jesse’s wife, composed herself enough to break the news to Caden and Cambria, her two kids. “Daddy had an accident at work,” she told them. “He’s in heaven and he can’t come home.”
In Yarnell, investigators from the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office photographed and documented the area, just as they would a crime scene. They placed each hotshot in a body bag and covered it with an American flag. The firefighters then gathered to pray over the bodies, and Darrell Willis read Psalm 23 from a small Bible he carries.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
While the fire still burned in Yarnell, the chain link fence surrounding Station 7 in Prescott, the Granite Mountain base, became an impromptu memorial. Family, friends, and strangers hung American flags there, along with T-shirts from other fire departments, photographs, and posters. Best Daddy Ever, one poster read. Candles and flowers lay on the ground, as did mementos: Nineteen matchbox fire trucks in a circle. Nineteen teddy bears. Nineteen shovels leaning against the fence. Many of the hotshots’ trucks and cars were still in the parking lot, where the men had left them Sunday morning for a day of work in Yarnell.
On Monday, a Type 1 overhead team took charge of fighting the 8,400-acre fire and then managing its aftermath: assisting the dead men’s families, dealing with the crush of media, and planning a memorial service that, on July 9, would draw thousands of firefighters and law-enforcement officers, a clutch of politicians, and a good portion of Prescott. At the event, Brendan McDonough would read the Hotshot’s Prayer, which ends with these lines: “For if this day on the line, I should answer death’s call, Lord, bless my hotshot crew, my family one and all.”
The Arizona State Forestry Division commissioned an investigation team to determine what had gone wrong in Yarnell. This wouldn’t be easy. After the other big wildfires that had killed multiple firefighters in the past century, survivors had been able to fill in crucial pieces of information about on-the-ground conversations and decision making. But the Granite Mountain Hotshots had died without any eyewitnesses.
Starting a few days after the fire, the investigation team, which included experts in everything from protective gear to incident management to weather and fire behavior, broke into small groups to interview a widening circle of people involved in the fire. People relived the day; interviews scheduled for an hour stretched on for two or three.
Before leaving Arizona in mid-July, the investigators walked the Yarnell fire site as a group. They stopped at McDonough’s lookout spot and followed the path the Granite Mountain Hotshots took that day: from their parking area up to their lunch spot and along the fire line where they had been building an anchor point. A fire-behavior analyst gave a blow-by-blow of what the hotshots would have been seeing. The team dropped into the box canyon, where their view to the north was cut off, and hiked down to the deployment site.
In their final report, the investigators described communications problems, supervisors’ lack of awareness about exactly where the hotshots were located, and the hotshots’ failure to tell them. But they devoted little discussion to whether the supervisors had acted appropriately during the crisis, and how the deaths could have been prevented.
Three months later, the Industrial Commission of Arizona assigned some blame. The commission had tasked its Division of Occupational Safety and Health with determining whether the Arizona State Forestry Division, which was in charge of the fire, had provided an unsafe work environment that led to the deaths of the hotshots. The conclusion of the Safety and Health inspectors was that it had. “The employer implemented suppression strategies that prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety,” they wrote, in a citation that fined the forestry division $559,000, which included $25,000 for the families of each dead hotshot.
A report prepared for the Safety and Health inspectors by a wildland-fire consulting group also noted that the Granite Mountain Hotshots had not been given maps or aerial imagery of their assigned territory, which could have helped them determine the distance to the safe zone at the Boulder Springs Ranch, and to scout out alternative escape routes. They faulted the hotshots for not posting a lookout as they moved and for not relaying their exact position. But the inspectors put much of the blame on the state forestry division, which, they wrote in a separate report, should have reevaluated the strategy as the fire intensified, and by 3:30 should have pulled back the hotshots and other firefighters working around Yarnell.
As hard as they tried, however, the Safety and Health inspectors were not able to answer the question that had stymied the first investigation team: Why had 19 skilled wildland firefighters left the safety of a burned-over area and hiked into a box canyon overgrown with dense vegetation, where an exploding fire trapped and killed them?
On a frosty autumn morning last year in Prescott, three seasonal workers gathered at Fire Station 7, the former home of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, and then headed out to clear brush on the southern outskirts of town. They represented what was left of the city’s wildland firefighting program. The city, mired in lawsuits filed against it by family members of dead hotshots and Yarnell homeowners, has no plans to rebuild its hotshot crew. The chain-link fence around the station house was bare, no longer the locus of the community’s shock and grief. The posters and T-shirts and trinkets had all been taken down, cataloged, and stored in boxes. The parking lot was empty, save for a few city fire trucks.
Inside, Darrell Willis, now a chief without any hotshots, sat in his office, first door on the right, behind what had been Eric Marsh’s desk. Before the fire, Willis had worked out of another station, but afterward he moved here, to feel closer to his men and to be available if widows and family members needed something. “I live it every day,” he said. “I relive it every day.”
Down the hallway, a sheet titled “Station Chores” was still pinned to the wall, dividing daily maintenance tasks among the crew’s more junior members. In the saw shop, the workbenches were clean, and each tool hung in place on a pegboard. Supplies still stood stacked in the resource room: backpacks, Nomex pants, work gloves, torches, foot powder—the basics needed to sustain a hotshot crew on a fire. In the firehouse gym, some of the equipment had been pushed to the side to make room for plastic tubs, one for each member of the crew. The tubs stored gifts and mementos that were still arriving at the station every day: quilts, crocheted prayer shawls, poems, a painting of firefighters raising the American flag over the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Whenever the bins filled up, the department delivered the contents to the hotshots’ families.
In the ready room—big enough for the crew to gather for a meal, prep for a trip, or take a class on fire behavior—several large posters still lined one wall. One showed three pictures of wildfires burning near homes, and asked, “Could you be here? Should you be here? Would you be here? Don’t Let Wildland Urban Interface change your Situational Awareness. Your life is more important than any structure!”
This is the firefighters’ conundrum: how to balance risk in the growing wildland-urban interface. Faced with tornados, floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes, we do little but let nature run its course, try to limit the damage, and clean up in the aftermath. But when it comes to wildfire, we think we can do more. We think we can fight it. We now spend more than $3 billion a year on that effort, but only a small fraction is used to put healthy fire back on the landscape. Firefighters die each year, even though we now realize fire suppression is a battle we can’t ever win, and in some cases shouldn’t even be fighting. With so many people now living in the wildland-urban interface, we don’t allow forests and shrublands to burn the way they did for millennia. Instead, firefighters battle ever-larger wildfires to protect increasing numbers of homes. The result is a cycle of tragic inevitability.
Like many others who fought the Yarnell Hill Fire and who knew the hotshots who died, Darrell Willis has spent a lot of time asking himself why they did what they did. Part of the answer he’s come up with involves the very natural urge to fight and protect our own. “They wanted to reengage,” he said, standing by the posters. “Sure, they could sit up there in the black. But if they could try to get back in the game, they were going to. What they had been doing was lost. And that happens a lot. You put a day’s worth of work into something, and all of the sudden it’s gone, and you have to have a new starting point somewhere. There’s a lot of sweat and expended energy. So what do we do, just sit up here and watch it go by? They knew there was an evacuation going on, they knew there were people staying in their houses. So what would the public think? ‘You’re not going to help us? Why did you even show up?’ ”
Another of the posters showed pictures of four fatal fires. The text on the poster read, “How is your Situational Awareness? Similar terrain, extreme fire behavior, 34 lives.”
The Granite Mountain crew had studied those fires and had even once walked the ground at South Canyon, where 14 firefighters had died in 1994, trying to understand what had happened from the firefighters’ perspective. They had hiked up the mountainside, on the same steep slopes where the firefighters had tried to outrun the flames, and had stood over the white crosses that now mark the place each one died.
“We said we’re never going to let this happen to us,” Willis said, shaking his head. “It was kind of like a commitment: we can’t let this happen to us.”
He shook his head again.
“I can just see another picture here,” he said. “ ‘2013. Yarnell Hill. 19.’ ”