YARNELL, Ariz. —
By 9:30 a.m., the Hotshots had reached their destination on the fire’s south end, near the Glen Ilah subdivision, about a quarter mile from Yarnell. The area had already been bulldozed, so the crew used chain saws, axes and other gear to build a line between the blaze and the town in case the winds changed and blew flames their way. Following standard procedure, they also mapped out an escape route.
Most of the fire activity had been restricted to the north end of the blaze. But in rugged, hilly terrain like that where the Hotshots were working, any thunder activity or downdrafts can cause winds to shift and flames to shoot in all directions, fire experts say.
In part, for that very reason, each crew always has at least one member serving as a lookout, stationed where he can watch the fire’s behavior and radio changes in conditions to the team.
That Sunday, Granite Mountain Hotshot Brendan McDonough was the eyes for the other 19 — assigned to a nearby hillside to provide reports to the crew and keep watch on “trigger points,” locations that when reached or crossed by a fire dictate a move to safer ground.
As the Hotshots attacked the blaze from the ground and aircraft dropped retardant from above, Yarnell school board member Eric Lawton was returning home from a trip. At 2 p.m., he saw fire close to the elementary school and to a few homes, but Lawton still believed Yarnell to be safe. At the time, a weather station 6 miles away showed winds coming from the southwest at 10 mph.
Lawton even joked with some new residents watching the flames from their front yards. “Welcome to Yarnell,” he hollered facetiously.
Soon, Lawton’s casual mood turned dark when a neighbor reported that town evacuations were underway. A thunderstorm was brewing, and the winds had shifted nearly 180 degrees — sending flames racing into Yarnell, where Lawton’s small, block home sat at the base of a hill.
“It was brown, then it was black, it then turned red and the flames topped the hill,” Lawton would later recall. “And I knew I had to get out.”
It was approaching 5 p.m., and the winds were now coming from the north at 26 mph, with gusts to 43 mph.
From his lookout post, McDonough saw the shift in winds and the fire suddenly coming toward him. He radioed down to his crewmates, telling them his trigger point had been reached, and that he was heading for safe ground.
As a Prescott fire official would later recount, McDonough told his team to contact him on the radio if they needed anything. Then he rode away with a firefighter from another Hotshot team. When last he looked, McDonough’s lookout position had already burned over in the flames.
At 4:47 p.m., Eric Marsh did radio to fire commanders, and his message was utterly terrifying. The 19 remaining Hotshots were deploying their emergency fire shelters — lightweight cocoons made of reflective material intended as a firefighter’s last resort.
Willis, the Prescott wildland fire chief, was in his pickup outside Yarnell, listening to the Hotshots’ tactical frequency, when he heard a garbled message from Marsh that he couldn’t quite make out. Then his cellphone rang.
“Did you hear that?” a supervisor asked him. All Willis could think was, “Not those guys.” His guys.
Then he began to pray.
Over and over again, the radio crackled with a constant, heartbreaking summons:
“Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?”
Maybe, thought Willis, they’re just out of radio contact. Maybe, he hoped, his friends would walk out of that smoke at any minute.
Helicopters circled the area in an attempt to douse the flames. But the smoke was so thick crews could only guess at where to drop their loads.
As time wore on, Willis got back on the phone. He called his wife first, and then the head of the Prescott Fire Department.
He asked them to start praying, too.