Valdosta Daily Times

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July 7, 2013

A brewing storm: How fire turned tragic for 19 men

YARNELL, Ariz. — Juliann Ashcraft had just put the kids down for a nap when her cellphone buzzed. It was a text from Andrew, her husband of seven years and, still, her best friend.

“This is my lunch spot,” he wrote beneath a photo of hard-hatted firefighters sitting on boulders, watching smoke rise on the horizon. “too bad lunch was an MRE,” the text concluded.

It was 2:16 p.m. on June 30.

That Sunday morning, Ashcraft and the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had been deployed to the ranching community of Yarnell to fight yet another wildfire. The crew had barely gotten home from a different blaze when word came that the team was needed again.

“I think I will be down there for a while on this one,” 29-year-old Ashcraft had told his wife via text.

The father of four always seized every opportunity to call or text Juliann while out on a job — even if it meant hiking to the top of a mountain to get a signal. Still, during the summer wildfire season, it was not unusual for the couple to go weeks on end without any communication. This day, so far, had been different.

That afternoon Juliann texted to report that it was raining at their house in nearby Prescott. She told her husband how much she wished he could be there, watching the drops fall with her and the kids.

“We could really use some rain over here,” he replied.

With that, their exchanges stopped. Thanks to the photo, Juliann could at least picture where Andrew was. But while it offered some comfort, the image was also foreboding.

Off in the distance, from behind a ridge line, billowed a sickly, blackish-brown plume — spreading like a bruise across the graying sky.

The blaze had ignited two days earlier with a lightning strike along the Date Creek Mountains above Yarnell. Once known as “Rich Hill” for the acres of gold nuggets discovered by prospectors in the 1860s, the town lies 80 miles northwest of Phoenix at 4,800 feet above sea level, leading to the motto, “Where a Desert Breeze Meets the Mountain Air.”

The slopes that surround the community are laden with manzanita, evergreen, mountain mahogany and oak. Though next-door to national forestland that regularly sees fire activity, this particular area had not burned in some 40 years and was deep into a drought — making it far more susceptible to fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marsh and Willis had worked together for years, and were close friends as well as colleagues.

Willis gave Marsh the rundown: Active fire. Lots of homes potentially at risk.

“It’s one of those days,” he warned.

Then Willis ended the conversation the way he does anytime he’s speaking to a firefighter.

“Be safe,” he told Marsh.

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