In June 2013, dry lightning ignited a wildfire on land near the town of Yarnell, Arizona. Following a long period of drought and high temperatures the fire grew rapidly, expanding over more than 8,000 hectares. More than 400 firefighters were tasked with controlling it. They included 20 members of an elite hotshot crew, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, tasked with responding to large fires and battling the most challenging parts of the blaze. Overrun by the fire that had moved erratically due to extreme temperatures and windy conditions, 19 members of the crew were killed.
The Yarnell Hill Fire began at around 5:30pm on June 28th 2013, sparked by lightning close to Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix. Within two days, 22mph winds had driven the fire to over 2,000 acres in size. Amongst the wildland firefighters that had been sent to battle the wildfire were an interagency hotshow crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Hotshots are specialised teams of 20 to 22 highly trained and experienced firefighters, equipped to work autonomously in remote areas without support. Using chainsaws, hand tools and ignition devices, hotshots specialise in rapidly creating handlines, firebreaks that act as a barrier to slow or stop the progress of a fire.
Deployed on a ridgeline overlooking Yarnell, the Granite Mountain crew received a weather report that 50mph winds had shifted the direction of the fire back towards the town. The crew were currently in what is known as ‘the black’, areas of already burnt vegetation that are considered safe. For whatever reason, the crew made the decision to leave the black and make for a nearby ranch house. While nobody knows why the choice was made, some have speculated that the crew intended to try and protect the home if the fire turned back towards it.
The first indication that the fire had again changed direction came when a member of the crew who had been sent to act as a lookout, 21-year-old Brendan McDonough, radioed his colleagues to say that the fire was threatening to overtake his position. He was told to make for safety, before being picked up by Brian Frisby, the leader of a fellow hotshot crew who had been listening to radio communications.
Initially, Frisby and members of his crew, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, moved the Granite Mountain crew’s vehicles away from the route of the fire. They then attempted to reach their fellow firefighters, who were now encircled, but were forced by the intensity of the fire. The Blue Ridge crew instead drove back through Yarnell, rescuing a small number of stragglers that had failed to evacuate earlier.
Moving through a box canyon thick with brush, the Granite Mountain crew were caught out by the erratically moving fire. They turned to their last resort when it became clear they were cut off: each man deployed a fire shelter, reflective covers made from aluminium foil, silica and fiberglass designed for a firefighter to lie beneath while the fire passes over him. While they provide only a certain level of protection from intense heat, they can often save the life of a firefighter by allowing a fast-moving grass fire to pass over them while trapping breathable air around them.
Used since the 1960s, they have generally proven highly effective, with only 41 deaths recorded across more than 1,200 deployments of fire shelters. Tragically, almost half of those deaths came during the Yarnell Hill fire. A combination of weather conditions meant that the flames were fanned to such extreme heats that the crew’s fire shelters failed.
Eric Tarr, a police officer paramedic, was the first rescuer on foot to arrive at the scene where the hotshot crew had deployed their shelters. All 19 men had been killed by the intense heat of the fire.
The incident was the most deadly wildfire incident involving firefighters since 1933, and the greatest loss of firefighter lives since the September 11th attacks. Flags were flown at half-mast throughout Arizona for the following three weeks, while over $800,000 in donations was raised for the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
More than 6,000 people attended a public memorial where Vice President Joe Biden, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and surviving crew member Brendan McDonough spoke. Representatives from over 100 hotshot crews from across the US were also in attendance.
A three-month investigation found no evidence of negligence or recklessness on the part of the crew, but did establish that there had been problems with radio communications due to heavy radio traffic. Arizona’s state Forestry Division was ultimately blamed for the deaths by the Industrial Commission of Arizona, stating that fire officials had knowingly put the protection of property ahead of the safety of firefighters, and should have pulled their men out earlier. They eventually handed out a $559,000 fine.