It was the deadliest incident for firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001. The Yarnell Hill Fire on June 28, 2013, is also the sixth-deadliest firefighter disaster in this country’s history — and still the worst wildfire the state of Arizona has ever faced.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were a crew inside the Prescott Fire Department trained to fight and prevent wildfires. Their location meant they saw more action than most. The town slogan of Yarnell, Arizona (30 miles outside of Prescott), was “where the desert breeze meets the mountain air.”
The Weaver Mountains are 6,000 feet above the town, while 2,000 feet below are the flatlands of the Sonoran Desert. The Yarnell Hill Fire would end up claiming the lives of 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots — men known as heroes in their town and surrounding areas.
It was a lightning strike that first started the wildfire in the hills above Yarnell in late June 2013. Though the area was in the middle of a drought, the fire was not much to think about at first. The Granite Mountain Hotshots headed straight for the 300-acre flames and did what they did best — they fought fire.
What moved the fire into a chaotic and destructive force were thunderstorm clouds that the firefighters could see building to the north of the flames as they tried to control and maintain the blaze.
Clouds create winds — and these can ultimately act like vacuums, helping to feed the flames below as they draw in hot air and moisture from the ground. The men continued to fight the flames while one member, Brendan "Donut" McDonough, was stationed as a lookout at another spot to inform the crew of the progress of the fire and whether it turned and headed for the town below.
The fire did eventually turn. The clouds above stopped sucking air and began acting as fans to the flames. The skies began blowing heavy winds and the Yarnell Hill Fire took on a life of its own. It headed straight for the town of Yarnell. Citizens saw the impending danger and began evacuating.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were faced with a decision — the worst kind. They could stay at their location in safety and make their way to another crew, or they could head straight for the fire and attempt to fight it off as best they could, and save some of the town's homes.
The 19 men chose the latter. They made their way down the mountain and as they did, the fire became an uncontrollable nightmare. Winds became so heavy that radio communication with other crews and air support was nearly impossible.
Embers floated down on the city, propane tanks outside of homes and stores exploded, and the winds created tidal waves of flames.
As the men made their way down, it soon became clear they were surrounded by fire — with little options left. Their only two choices now were to try to outrun the fire (never a good idea) and perhaps some men would make it; or they could find a spot to hunker down in their provided shelters. These shelters — a last resort — were made of aluminum, fiberglass and woven silica that can save firefighters from breathing in fumes, though they do not stand up to direct contact with flames.
The crew decided to stay together and use the shelters in a spot where the fire had a chance of not spreading.
When the fire began to back off and die out, it was confirmed in the aftermath that all 19 men had perished. None had run. They'd stayed together in the shelters.
McDonough, the only surviving member of the crew, had been picked up by another crew from his lookout spot and worked the fire with them.
"Looking back, it escalated quickly," McDonough told Outside Online in an interview. When he pulled back to the town, he said, he could see where his crew was in the fire — and the magnitude of the situation began sinking in. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'No. They'll be fine. They're tough,' but then it just comes to a point where you have to be real with yourself, of what options there are ... Either they're going to live or they're going to die."
"Looking back, it escalated quickly."
He continued, "All this is going on and I'm sitting in the buggy, our buggy, and there's phones going off. Family members trying to get ahold of [his crew], and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to answer them. I wish I could [have]. I wish they could've answered them, but it just ... it just wasn't going to happen."
When the 19 men were pulled down from the mountain, a pastor was there to bless each body. The men were transported 78 miles to a hospital in Phoenix to be prepared for burial.
Word of the men's fate had spread quickly, on news reports and in social media. What was at first a few onlookers on the highway paying their respects to the men soon became thousands lining the streets. Police cars and fire trucks posted up at each traffic light on the route to the hospital. People stood shoulder to shoulder offering prayers and respect in 100-plus degree weather on a Monday afternoon.
They wanted to let these boys know they would not be forgotten and their actions meant something.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are not forgotten. Stories of the crew are still told to this day, not just in Arizona, but around the country.
A new film starring Josh Brolin and Miles Teller, in theaters today, looks to salute these firefighters. "Only the Brave" tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and the cast and crew wanted nothing more than to highlight the heroics of the first responders.
Said Josh Brolin to Hollywood in Toto about "Only the Brave" and the men it salutes, "It's a movie that honors people who should be honored who don't in any way, shape or form exploit themselves."
The names of the deceased Granite Mountain Hotshots are: Andrew Ashcraft, Robert Caldwell, Travis Carter, Dustin Deford, Christopher MacKenzie, Eric Marsh, Grant McKee, Sean Misner, Scott Norris, Wade Parker, John Percin, Anthony Rose, Jesse Steed, Joe Thurston, Travis Turbyfill, William Warneke, Clayton Whitted, Kevin Woyjeck and Garret Zuppiger.