CHAPTER 15 - THE YARNELL HILL FIRE by michele nelson

“Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front!”

This desperate radio call came as time ran out for the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, tough, intensely trained firefighters whose determination to save the town of Yarnell ended in tragedy — and made martyrs to the nation’s failed fire policies. Granite Mountain Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh had transformed his life, built the team with sheer will and discipline, saved hometown Prescott, made his “kids” into local heroes. He’d made the only city-run Hotshot fire crew in the nation a model on the front lines of a terrifying era of megafires.

The only wildland Hotshot crew run by a municipal fire department, the Granite Mountain Hotshots demonstrated their top condition and exuberance weeks before the Yarnell Hill Fire in this photo in front of an ancient alligator juniper they helped save from the Doce Fire, along with a Prescott subdivision of high-end homes.

On Sunday, June 30, 2013 at 4:39 p.m., the crew he’d built sent that desperate call to incident command. Marsh, second in command Jesse Steed and Hotshot Bob Caldwell all called for help as a wall of flames raced up a box canyon toward their position. In the background, the rest of the crew frantically cut brush so they could deploy fire shelters.

Like everyone else, they had underestimated the fire as it swirled out of control, rose on a pillar of flame then collapsed into the same type of storm that 23 years earlier killed six firefighters in the Dude Fire. They had been moving parallel to the fire toward Yarnell when the monster split, roared around the flank of the canyon and caught them less than a mile from safety.

What went wrong?

How did it happen?

Who’s to blame?

What lessons can we draw from their deaths?

Repeated investigations, lawsuits, books and soon, a movie, have all sought to answer those searing questions. But can anyone stop the megafires spawned by a century of mismanagement? Should we ask firefighters to brave 100-foot flames to save ill-prepared communities?

The Yarnell Hill Fire started on June 28 on the cusp of the monsoon, the most dangerous time of the year. A dry lightning strike hit the top of Yarnell Hill on Friday, June 28 at about 5 p.m.

Arizona State Forestry Type 3 Incident Commander Russ Shumate directed the initial attack on the fire. He represented the front line of an enormous “fire industrial complex” that can deploy 57,000 firefighters and a small air force of bombers on a budget in the billions.

A quick check from the air revealed a quiet fire — barely growing. So Shumate decided not to risk dispatching a fire crew in the dark. A few crews could catch it in the morning, he reasoned. But in less than 20 hours, the Yarnell Hill Fire would explode, with tragic effect.

One of the VLATs, a DC-10, drops fire retardant on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30. Photo courtesy of Rick Tham

“Wildfires are the only natural disaster we think we can control. If the federal government gave us all the money in the world, we’d still fail to control all the blazes,” Chuck Womack, of the National Incident Fire Command (NIFC) told Kyle Dickman, author of “On the Burning Edge” and a former wildland firefighter himself.

Decades of effort to put out fires quickly have merely paved the way for disaster. Every fire extinguished left more fuel for the monster as people built millions of new homes on the forest’s edge.

In the case of Yarnell, a community of a 650 people — loners, retirees and nature lovers — had built wooden homes tucked into lots choked with vegetation. The NIFC reports that 70,000 communities around the nation with around 40 million homes housing 140 million people sit in the way of wildfires.

Every year those numbers increase. NIFC also said most of the homes don’t meet Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) building codes and fewer than 2 percent of America’s fire-menaced communities have completed defensible-space work.

Yarnell was no exception. Yavapai fire chief and the structure-protection specialist Gary Cordes surveyed Yarnell as the fire approached and found overgrown yards and wooden houses. Cordes quickly concluded firefighters could do nothing to save the buildings there, according to the Yarnell Hill Serious Accident Investigation report.

Still, the firefighters stood ready to do almost anything to save the people of Yarnell.

Enter Granite Mountain

Shumate spent all of June 29 in a futile effort to get ahead of the fire. But the weather, fuel conditions and lack of resources conspired to make the Yarnell Hill Fire more than he could handle.

By 7:30 p.m. on June 29, he called up Granite Mountain and two other Hotshot crews and an Arizona State Type 2 Incident Command Crew to attack the fire the next morning. The Hotshots were elite fire warriors who spend more time close to fire in a single season than many structure firefighters see in a career. Granite Mountain formed to protect Prescott. From its inception as a mining town in the late 1800s, Prescott had burned repeatedly.

In 1980, the Prescott fire department created Crew 7, tasked with creating a defensible space around Prescott. The program worked. In 2002, previous clearing efforts by the crew saved historic Whiskey Row and the town’s center from a wildfire.

Granite Mountain Superintendent Eric Marsh started on Crew 7 in 2003 after more than a decade of trying to find where he fit in the world. During the next 10 years, he worked relentlessly to turn the brush removal crew into a professional Hotshot crew — the Special Forces elite of wildland firefighting.

Crew 7 became a Type 2 crew in 2006, thanks to Marsh’s drive and exhaustive drilling and training. The crew called him “Papa.” He and his third-wife Amanda joked that the Hotshot crew took the place of the children they did not have.

Some resisted — considering him difficult, unreachable and moody. None doubted his dedication — or his toughness. They ran for miles. They lifted weights. They fixed chain saws and maintained their buggies, the vans they used to get to fires. The crew also had relentless training out in the brush on how to create a perfect fire line. The four or five core members of the team worked year-round for the Prescott Fire Department. The rest worked seasonally, relying on the avalanche of overtime during fire season to support families.

They were absolutely dedicated to each other and to Marsh. Usually, Marsh ran the crew, but in 2013 at the age of 41 he suffered a debilitating mountain bike injury that sidelined him. While he recovered, Jesse Steed took over.

People called Steed the “picture-perfect” Hotshot. A former Marine, Steed stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 220 pounds. He worked the crew almost harder than Marsh, but had a more easy camaraderie with the men. Married with two little girls, Steed was that father they could climb all over and wrap around their little fingers.

Steed also put his men above everything else.

Earlier in the 2013 fire season at the Thompson Ridge Fire in New Mexico, Steed refused an order to push his men into chasing a fire that had slopped over a ridge during an overzealous back burning operation. Instead he waited until the fire intensity died down and then took the crew in to help manage the fire.

Steed also directed the crew in fighting the Doce Fire near Prescott, helping to save a subdivision of upscale homes. Granite Mountain also became hometown heroes when they hiked through the brush and created a cleared space around an enormous alligator juniper — one of the oldest of its species. Elated when they returned to find the tree singed but alive, they playfully built a human pyramid — and hung from the tree limbs. Later, the photos would become world famous.

The Yarnell Hill Fire was Marsh’s first time back on the line in 2013.

Not only was he superintendent of Granite Mountain, Roy Hall, the Arizona State Type 2 incident commander on the fire, asked him to serve as division alpha chief. Fire crews on a big fire follow a military organization, with clear lines of command for each section of the fire front. With the division alpha status, Marsh could call more of the shots with less oversight from command.

Hikers took this photo of the Granite Mountain IHC the morning of June 30. Photo courtesy of Joy Collura

At 7 a.m. on Sunday, June 30 the Granite Mountain Hotshots arrived at the Yarnell Fire Station for a briefing. Marsh and the incident command crew went over a Google Map to decide safe zones, identify effective places to fight the fire, learn the radio frequencies in use and absorb the latest weather reports.

Granite Mountain would work at the back of the fire, creating an anchor point for the fire lines cut on the flanks of the fire to herd it away from communities. In this case, the weather was pushing the fire toward Peeples Valley, a town across the way from Yarnell. The line they cut could play an important role in protecting Yarnell should the fire shift course. They had a job to do and they decided to put their all into it.

They had no idea how much that would cost.

Fighting the fire

The increasingly complex fire, the turn over in command and the poor radio reception left Marsh and the crew on their own for much of the day.

Around 9:30 a.m., on the way up to where they would scratch out an anchor point, Marsh and the crew passed by two hikers.

The hikers told Marsh they knew the area well, especially around the Boulder Creek Ranch owned by the Helmses. At the briefing earlier in the day, incident command had identified this ranch as a “bomb proof” safety zone. The buildings had metal roofs and siding, with brush cleared away from the buildings. If the fire did reach the property, the ranch would likely remain unscathed. Nor could any rain of embers set the metal roofs of the barn or house on fire.

Boulder Creek Ranch

The hikers told Marsh about a Jeep trail leading along a ridge to the ranch and Marsh decided to make this his escape route if the fire turned on the crew.

Reaching the ridge, Granite Mountain began cutting brush and starting backfires. However, two misdirected bomber drops snuffed out the backfires as soon as Granite Mountain got them started.

Understandably, this frustrated Marsh, but it was only one part of the command disarray.

By 9 a.m., the second Hotshot crew, Blue Ridge, arrived. They too were tasked with working the back of the fire, but remained unsure of their task. Blue Ridge Superintendent Brian Frisby drove an ATV up to confer with Marsh soon after arriving.

Marsh told them of his challenges communicating with Air Attack and of the dead spots in radio coverage. He and other firefighters had rigged up a relay system with another radio tower in Yarnell, but it proved sketchy at best. To top it off, the driver of a dozer digging a line to protect Yarnell wasn’t a certified firefighter, which means he couldn’t operate too close to the fire line.

However, those Blue Ridge Hotshots helping the dozer driver discovered an abandoned road grader that had signs around it saying, ‘Danger! Explosives! Keep out!’ The Blue Ridge crew and the driver avoided the area, which created a hole in the fire line.

As Marsh spoke with Frisby, he got a call from Rance Marquez, in charge of protecting the structures in Yarnell. Marquez sought control over Blue Ridge and the dozer, but Marsh balked. The confusion again muddled the chain of command.

The incident illustrated the confusion on the quiet back end of the Yarnell fire, as command focused on Peeples Valley and the fire’s front.

But that would soon change.

Everything shifts

The meteorologist assigned to the Yarnell Hill Fire began issuing increasingly urgent warnings of a change in the weather. In response, Marsh posted a lookout to monitor conditions and warn the crew of any spot fires.

Marsh chose Brandon McDonough, known to the crew as Donut.

Loyal, hardworking and determined, McDonough had a turbulent past and loved living on the edge. He found a higher purpose when he had a daughter and looked to the Granite Mountain crew as a fresh start. McDonough lived with Granite Mountain full-time firefighter, Chris MacKenzie — a California native with a laid-back personality.

As lookout, McDonough picked a low spot on the ride amidst unburned brush just north of the road grader with the explosives signs. He assumed the clearing around the grader would offer enough protection if the fire came his way.

A bit after noon, Frisby dropped McDonough off at his lookout point and told him to call if he needed to get out of there. McDonough spent his time taking weather readings and watching for spot fires started by embers that could endanger the crew.

As McDonough watched his crew mates, a finger of fire split off from the front. He still felt safe enough, barring a wind change. But identified a “trigger point” that would prompt him to flee if the fire reached it.

At 3:50 p.m. the winds suddenly shifted and the finger of fire jumped to life, heading straight for McDonough.

He radioed Steed.

“Steed, Donut. It’s hit my trigger point. I’m heading back to the safety zone.”

When he arrived at the grader, McDonough realized he’d made a mistake. The clearing around the machine was about as large as a tennis court and surrounded by brush.

At just that moment, the Blue Ridge superintendent whipped around a corner on his ATV to grab McDonough to take him to where both crews’ buggies were parked.

The two raced off as Steed watched from the ridge. Steed radioed that the crew had “good eyes” on McDonough and that the Hotshots remained “in the black” — a safe area already burned by the fire.

Lost in the chaos

At about that time, Paul Musser, operations chief, radioed Marsh from command. He asked if Marsh could move the crew to Yarnell, as the fire has completely shifted direction and was now moving toward the unprepared community.

At the time of the call, it seemed as if Granite Mountain had time to reposition. They couldn’t create a fire line in front of the community, but they could move in to help after waiting out the flames at Boulder Creek Ranch. An evacuation call had just gone out for the town of Yarnell and authorities calculated it would take the fire an hour to reach the town.

But everyone tragically underestimated the conditions.

The weather continued to intensify. Able from command radioed Marsh to make sure he’d heard the updated weather report.

Marsh radioed the winds were getting “squirrelly up here,” but that the crew was in the black.

Relieved, Able turned his attention to the chaos unfolding in Yarnell. The fire turned so quickly many residents had no time to evacuate.

At this point, Marsh made a fateful mistake. For some reason, he decided to move the crew from the safety of the black down to the Helms’ Boulder Creek Ranch. For 30 minutes, Granite Mountain did not report its movements, according to the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation.

The Granite Hills Hotshots shortly before they died in the Yarnell Hill Fire saved this ancient pinyon-juniper from the Doce Fire. Word of their efforts to save a world heritage tree made them heroes in Prescott. Photos from Yarnell fire investigative report

The report guesses that sometime between 4:05 p.m. and 4:10 p.m., Granite Mountain took off from the black of the ridge.

The Accident Report estimates that around 4:20 p.m., the crew dropped off a saddle onto the Jeep trail that winds down the ridge toward the Boulder Creek Ranch. The report surmised the crew decided to risk the shortcut to reach the ranch. However, the geography and brush proved more difficult than they anticipated.

The Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation report postulates the crew moved so the Hotshots could help protect Yarnell.

In all of the scenarios explored in the report, the only way for Granite Mountain to remain active in the firefight was to move to the Boulder Creek Ranch.

Marsh made his next call at 4:37 p.m. when he cut in on the radio of Air Attack plane Bravo 33 flown by John Burfiend. Marsh must have seen the plane fly over. In the confusion, perhaps Marsh thought the plane knew they were there. By then, the flames had emerged from behind a ridge that had blocked their view of the fire.

“Bravo 33, Division Alpha. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. That’s where we want the retardant,” said Marsh.

Steed made the first mayday call at 4:39 p.m.

“Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front.”

Another call quickly followed.

“Air-to-ground 16, Granite Mountain, Air Attack, how do you read?”

Burfiend struggled to hear the transmission. The radio was spotty; the voice covered by the sound of strong winds and lost amongst the crowded radio communications coming out of Yarnell.

Able from command broke in. He and Burfiend had been discussing where to make a retardant drop.

“Granite Mountain, Operations on air-to-ground.”

Bob Caldwell, smart enough to qualify for Mensa membership, followed up Steed’s calls; “Air Attack, Granite Mountain 7, how do you copy me?”

By now, firefighters around the area had tuned in to Granite Mountain’s plight. They heard the stress in the voices and chain saws in the background. Yet everyone was confused, they had assumed Granite Mountain was still safely in the black.

Again Caldwell called out, more intensely, “Air Attack, Granite Mountain 7!”

Frustrated, Burfiend told Caldwell to stop yelling into the radio.

Finally, Able grasped the situation and realized Granite Mountain needed help. He told Burfiend, “OK, Granite Mountain 7, sounds like they got some trouble, uh, go ahead and get that, he’s trying to get you on the radio, let’s go ahead and see what we’ve got going on,” Able says to Burfiend.

Burfiend replied; OK copy that, uh, I’ll get with Granite Mountain 7 then.”

Then Marsh called;

“Bravo 33, Division Alpha with Granite Mountain.”

Burfiend responded;

“OK, Division Alpha, Bravo 33.”

Marsh, “Yeah, 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.”

Then radio silence.

As the fire burned over the 19 Hotshots, Mrs. Helms, owner of the Boulder Creek Ranch came out to get her dog. Seeing the wall of flames, she and her husband wrangled all of their stock into the barn then dashed into their home. The fire raged around them, but they remained perfectly safe.

No one from Granite Mountain ever made another call.

For the next 15 minutes, Burfiend called to the crew’s radio repeatedly.

A helicopter carrying a medic from the Yavapai sheriff’s office joined the search for the missing men. It wasn’t until 6:25 p.m. that the helicopter saw where the men lay in the box canyon less than a mile away from the ranch.

The helicopter landed and Eric Tarr, a sheriff medic, arrived at the deployment site.

Once he examined the bodies, declared all 19 firefighters causalities of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

In memory of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire

Tragedy wrought by man

A perfect storm of fire, drought conditions, crazy weather, a complex command system, poor radio support and a desire to help those who had built in the wilderness conspired to kill the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The men were trained to save lives and structures by taking calculated risks. But this fire burned faster and hotter than anyone expected.

Granite Mountain paid the price.

Why did they die in that canyon?

Simply because Yarnell was there.

Aftermath reports

Both the state Forestry Division and the Industrial Commission of Arizona spent months researching the tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The State Forestry’s report, entitled the Yarnell Hill Serious Accident Investigation, laid no blame at any one organization or person nor did the report find any negligence.

The Industrial Commission, however, found that the State’s Forestry Division had knowingly put the protection of property ahead of the safety of the firefighters. The report said the state should have pulled the firefighters out earlier.

The commission fined the Forestry Division $559,000.

Faced with millions of dollars in costs as a result of the deaths of 19 firefighters, Prescott eventually disbanded one of the only municipal Hotshot crews in the country. Tucson, which has emulated Prescott’s program, followed suit.

The program Marsh had built with such fierce determination — which had saved Prescott’s downtown as well as that ancient juniper — did not survive him.

Thousands of firefighters attended the funerals of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Writers documented their lives and final moments. Their families grieved and someone continued without them.

But the fires still burn — bigger and hotter, seemingly every year. Towns like Payson still don’t have a WUI fire code. Builders continue to put new homes in the thickets of trees.

The monument to the Granite Hills Hotshots stands just outside of Yarnell — which is slowly rebuilding. But not much else has changed.

Yarnell Fire SIZE Timeline

June 28, 2013

5:36 p.m. –

First calls reporting lightening strikes and fire on Yarnell Hill.

According to the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report, multiple lightening strikes hit the area around Prescott around the 5:00 p.m. hour. Out of those lightening strikes, seven fires were discovered – four on Bureau of Land Management and State Forestry Land.

The Yarnell Fire was one of those four.

That fire was added to the 37 fires burning around the state that day.

The Preparedness level, meaning how taxed the response system was at Level 4. The highest level is 5.

In other words, resources were thin, but at an average level for that time of year and planning level.

Eight uncontrolled fires burned, the Silver, Jaroso, Creek, Doce (near Prescott), Sycamore, Thompson Ridge (New Mexico), Tres Lagunas and Rock Creek.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots had fought the Thompson Ridge and Doce fires already.

Size: less than an acre.

June 29, 2013

10:11 a.m. – Aerial surveillance reports limited flame activity.

12:22 p.m. – Aerial surveillance reports the fire’s size as 2 acres.

4:00 p.m. – Winds increase from the west-southwest increasing the fire’s size.

4:15 p.m. – Fire grows to three to four acres.

5:15 p.m. – Fire jumps the two-track road on the east flank and grows to 6 acres. At this point, the fire has slopped over the containment line.

The fire continues to grow in intensity and size. It grows to 100 acres.

7:24 p.m. – The fire spreads actively into chaparral to the north-northeast.

Weather stations report the temperature at 101 degrees.

Humidity stands at 12 percent.

Winds are 10 miles per hour gusting to 20 miles per hour out of the south-southeast.

The fire is spreading from 100 to 200 yards per hour.

9:38 p.m. – Flames grow to 20 – 30 feet.

Size: 100+ acres

June 30, 2013

Estimated fire perimeter (418 acres) at 1000 hours on June 30

6:29 a.m. – Fire’s estimated size: 600 acres.

9:45 a.m. – Weather report predicts isolated thundershowers for the evening with lightening, strong winds and no rain over the fire.

10:45 a.m. – Aerial surveillance reports fire’s size increases to 800 to 1,000 acres.

The front spread out for about a mile and a half with at times fouty-to-fifty foot flames.

Veterans of many fires had never seen a fire burning as if it were the middle of a hot day so early in the morning.

The fire was moving at 1/8th of a mile per hour to the northeast – towards Peeple’s Valley.

12:27 p.m. – Fire flames rise to 15 – 20 feet high.

Reports say the fire is moving N – NE at a half-mile per hour. Estimates are the fire is one hour outside of Peeples Valley.

In two hours, the fire grows an additional 700 acres.

2:02 p.m. – National Weather Service issues the day’s first weather alert, forecasting thunderstorm activity on fire’s east side.

3:26 p.m. – National Weather Service issues a second alert for thunderstorm-driven winds approaching the fire from the Northeast. Alert says winds could blow at 40-50 miles per hour.

3:30 – 3:45 p.m. – Wind direction shifts by 180 degrees. Winds now blow from the West to the Northwest.

Ash begins to fall on crews near the Shrine of St. Joseph.

Two-mile wall of flames marches southeast.

4:24 p.m. – Image on Doppler radar shows fire plume at 31,500 feet.

4:30 p.m. – Thunder storm-driven winds reach the northern edge of the fire and pushes it south.

Flames double their size and triple their speed.

July 1, 2013

Fire grows to 8,300 acres prompting the evacuation of Peeple’s Valley.

July 2, 2013

The fire is at 8 percent containment, but had not increased in size for 24 hours.

July 3, 2013

The fire was at 45 percent containment.

July 4, 2013

The residents of Peeple’s Valley return to their homes. Yavapai Sheriff reports two buildings burned in the Valley.

July 8, 2013

The residents of Yarnell return home to find some houses survived, others did not. Yarnell lost 127 buildings, according to the Yavapai Sheriff.

July 10, 2013

The Yarnell Hill Fire is declared 100 percent contained.

- Timeline sources: Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation, The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos and On The Burning Edge by Kyle Dickman


June 28, 2013

5:40 p.m. Yarnell Hill Fire starts due to dry lightening strike

June 29, 2013

9:01 p.m. – Granite Mountain Hot Shots assigned to fight the fire. Requested to show up on June 30.

June 30, 2013

7:00 a.m. (approximately) – Granite Mountain attends a fire briefing meeting at Yarnell Fire Station. They learn that the Helm’s Boulder Springs Ranch is a bombproof safety zone because the buildings have metal roof and siding and brush has been cleared around property.

8:59 a.m. – Granite Mountain starts hiking up the hill to where they will work to create an anchor point.

This point will keep the fire from doubling back on them.

9:18 a.m. – A hiker takes a photo of Granite Mountain passing by her and a friend.

11:36 a.m. – A tanker drops retardant on a back fire Granite Mountain had created to help establish an anchor point on the mountain at the back end of the Yarnell Fire.

12:10 p.m. – A new supervisor for Division Zulu, who oversees the Blue Ridge Hotshots, arrives where both Granite Mountain and Blue Ridge buggies are parked.

He and Marsh confer, but cannot agree on the “break location or associated supervisory responsibilities,” according to the Serious Accident Investigation Report.

This results “in uncertainty among some personnel about the physical break between Division Alpha and Zulu,” reads the report. Basically, Blue Ridge did not know who their division head was, Marsh kept control of Granite Mountain, the dozer remained in the hands of the structural firefighter Cordes, and Division Zulu was not heard from for the rest of the day.

Troubles with the radio forced the two commanders to speak over the Blue Ridge Hotshot’s crew radio on an intra-crew frequency. This conversation is not heard by Incident Command.

12:37 p.m. – Brandon McDonough is dropped off at a lookout spot about a mile northeast of Granite Mountain. His job is to watch for spot fires below his crew.

Granite Mountain takes lunch, then starts working again. The crew remains in the view of McDonough – Marsh on an outcrop and Steed near the anchor point.

The Granite Mountain Crew also remains in contact with the Blue Ridge crew, incident command and air command.

Steed and McDonough and others talk over the radio about thunderstorms coming in. Steed says he may have seen a few lightening strikes, reports the Serious Accident Investigation Report.

1:24 p.m. – Wade Parker texts his mother, “We’re on a 500-acre fire in Yarnell. Temps supposed to get up to 116. I gotta pretty good headache. Pray for me.

3:19 p.m. – Andrew Ashcroft texts his wife Juliann, “We could really use a little rain down here.”

3:26 p.m. – All fire crews told the National Weather Service has issued a second alert for thunderstorms. The winds could shift to the Northeast and reach 40 to 50 miles per hour.

Operations checks to make sure Marsh, as Division Alpha and Granite Mountain has heard this second weather update.

Marsh acknowledges the weather update.

3:40 p.m. – Marsh requests a face-to-face meeting with the Blue Ridge Superintendent. The Blue Ridge Superintendent hears the updated weather report.

3:42 p.m. – Eric Marsh receives a request from Paul Musser, of incident command team. Musser asks if Marsh could bring his hotshots in to protect Yarnell’s homes.

3:50 p.m. – The fire reaches McDonough’s trigger point. He starts hiking to his safety spot as well as looking for a place to deploy his fire shelter if the fire overtakes him. McDonough decides to call the Blue Ridge command with a request for a ride. Before he gets the call out, the Blue Ridge Hot Shot Superintendent arrives on an ATV and picks up McDonough.

Steed tells McDonough, “I’ve got eyes on you and the fire, and it’s making a good push.”

3:50 p.m. – Todd Abel of incident command radios March to make sure he has heard the most recent weather update. March says yes he has and that “winds are getting squirrely up here.” Abel asks if the crew is “in a good spot.” Marsh answers, “Yes, we’re in the black.”

Air Attack tells Marsh the fire is heading quickly toward Yarnell and could reach the town in one to two hours. He tells Marsh their buggies might be in the way of the fire.

Marsh tells them he has a plan to address that problem.

3:50 p.m. – McDonough gets onto the Blue Ridge Hotshot’s Superintendent’s ATV and hands the radio to Frisby. He tells Granite Mountain McDonough is safe, but the Granite Mountain buggies will have to move.

Steed says the crew has “good eyes,” on McDonough. Steed says they are “in the black,” and they will assess from there.

McDonough believes the crew is safe in the black watching the fire as he leaves on the ATV, reports the Serious Accident Investigation Report.

3:55 p.m. – As McDonough waits in the buggies, the Blue Ridge Superintendent leaves to find more men to drive all of the vehicles.

McDonough listens on the Granite Mountain radio as Steed and Marsh discuss their options, “whether to stay in the black or to come up with a plan to move,” says the Serious Accident Investigation Report.

4:04 p.m. – Wade Parker texts his mother, “This thing is running for Yarnell, just starting to evac. you can see fire on the left town on the right.”

3:55 to 4:04 p.m. – Sometime in this time frame, as Frisby searches for drivers, incident command contacts him to see if his crew can burn out from the dozer line they have created outside of Yarnell to protect buildings.

Both March and Frisby agree there is no way to burn out that line.

4:00 p.m. – Able asks Granite Mountain, “Is everything OK?”

Marsh replies, “Yes, we’re just moving.”

This is where the Serious Incident Report seeks to breakdown what happened to Granite Mountain because no one really knows why Granite Mountain moved.

Sometime around 4:05 and 4:10, the crew started walking down the two track road toward the Boulder Springs Ranch.

As they traveled along the ridge, they had a good view of the fire.

4:20 p.m. – The approximate time the Serious Accident Investigation Report estimates Granite Mountain descended from the two-track road into the chaparral hoping to find a more direct route to the Boulder Creek Ranch.

When Granite Mountain reached the saddle, the logical place to descend, they had a direct view of the ranch, but not the fire.

The ranch appeared close, but locals said that area’s geography was difficult and time consuming to traverse, full of chapparal and boulders.

The report says that Granite Mountain worked its way down the slope until the flaming front cut them off.

4:37 p.m. – Air support seeks to drop retardant on the north part of Yarnell and passes over Granite Mountain.

Marsh said, “Division Alpha, that’s exactly what we’re looking for. That’s where we want the retardant.”

The pilot, Burfiend, then has a conversation with Able at incident command on the air to ground frequency to discuss where to drop the retardant when, according to the report, “an overmodulated and static-filled transmission comes over the air-to-ground frequency”

4:39 p.m. – Reports say Steed emotionally yells over the radio, “Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front.”

Then came ‘a very broken, with wind in the microphone transmission: “Air-to-ground 16, Granite Mountain, Air Attack, how do you read?”

The chatter on the radio about the impending advance of the fire on Yarnell and the attempt to save structures makes incident command think the call is one of the structure protection units asking for a retardant drop.

Burfiend believes Granite Mountain is OK since he just spoken with them and they were safe in the black.

Able then tries to reach Granite Mountain: “Granite Mountain, Operations on air-to-ground.”

Then Bob Caldwell of Granite Mountain calls, seconds later: “Air Attack, Granite Mountain 7, how do you copy me?”

Firefighters near the highway overhear the radio traffic. Hearing chainsaws in the background and the Granite Mountain crewmembers’ increasing urgency, they are confused – the last they heard, Granite Mountain was in the black.

Chainsaws are not a good sound, however. The firefighters begin to understand Granite Mountain may be creating a deployment area.

Less than a minute later, the firefighters hear: “Air Attack, Granite Mountain 7!” from Caldwell again.

During these calls, Burfiend and Able are discussing how to use the aircraft to stop the fire racing towards Yarnell.

The Granite Mountain transmissions are unclear to Burfiend.

Believing the Granite Mountain to be a crew saving structures, he tells them to stop yelling on the air-to-ground frequency.

Granite Mountain had believed they were calling on the Arizona 16 frequency, an emergency frequency all aircraft have programmed and monitor to focus on in emergencies.

Able believes Granite Mountain is in trouble. He tells Burfiend:

“Okay, Granite Mountain 7 sound like they got some trouble, uh, go ahead and get that, he’s trying to get you on the radio, let’s go ahead and see what we’ve got going on.”

Burfiend: “Okay, copy that, uh, I’ll get with Granite Mountain 7 then.”

Then Marsh called in sounding calm: “Bravo 33, Division Alpha with Granite Mountain.”

Burfiend: “Okay uh Division Alpha, Bravo 33.”

With more urgency Marsh says on the radio, “Yeah, 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.”

The Serious Incident Accident Report said the crew had less than two minutes to prepare their shelter deployment site.

With the fire racing at them at 10 to 12 miles per hour, it eliminated any hope of the crew reaching the ranch or going back up the slope.

Burfiend had one last radio transmission: “Okay copy that. So you’re on the south side of the fire then?”

Marsh yells, “Affirm!”

4:42 p.m. – Approximate time investigators estimate Granite Mountain deployed their shelters.

Burfiend: “K, we’re gonna bring you the VLAT okay.”

Burfiend then tells the VLAT to orbit to the southeast until he locates the Granite Mountain crew. The VLAT Captain replies he will keep full eyes on Burfiend and be ready for an immediate drop.

For the next four minutes, Burfiend tries seven times to reach Granite Mountain to figure out where they are.

He does not reach them.

Meanwhile, a Type 2 (medium) helicopter is preparing to lift off to refuel when he hears the radio traffic.

He contacts Burfiend to offer assistance in the search.

As they fly, they cannot see the ground because of the smoke.

Burfiend continues to try and contact Granite Mountain telling them to contact him if they hear the helicopter.

As the fire sweept over the Granite Mountain crew, Mrs. Helms, the owner of the Boulder Creek Ranch, went outside to check on her dog.

Seeing that the fire has advanced significantly, she and her husband pulled all of their livestock into the barn and then returned to their house just as the fire sweept their property.

Because it is built of fire-resistant construction and has brush cleared to create a defensible space, they and their property are unharmed.

In Yarnell and Glen Ilah, a community south of Yarnell, the people have not had time to evacuate because the fire moved so quickly.

Firefighters put overwhelmed people into ambulances and vehicles and drive them to safety.

No one from the town of Yarnell or the community of Glen Illah perish because of the fire.

6:10 p.m. – The Serious Incident Accident Report says that the Ranger 58 helicopter sees the Boulder Springs Ranch and decides to investigate with Granite Mountain’s last transmissions in mind.

The helicopter reports seeing the shelters approximately one-mile south-southeast of the firefighter’s last known location.

“People involved with the fire and the search efforts express surprise at the location,” writes the report.

The pilot lands the helicopter 500 yards from the shelters. DPS officer/paramedic Eric Tarr hikes to the shelters.

6:25 p.m. – Tarr confirms nineteen fatalities.

The Serious Incident Accident Report concludes that the box canyon Granite Mountain deployed in was not survivable because of heavy brush. This brush caused direct flame contact. Temperatures exceeded 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit as the fire swept through the site.

The crew had no chance.

- Timeline sources: Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation, The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos and On The Burning Edge by Kyle Dickman

Spark by Pia Wyer

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