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New details in deaths of 19 hotshot firefighters in Arizona

10:56 AM, Jul 24, 2013   |    comments
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By Dennis Wagner The Republic | azcentral.com

YARNELL - It's just a small plot of scorched earth amid a fire- blackened moonscape, yet visiting this death site transforms an abstract statistic - 19 firefighter deaths - into an image of agony.

Here, in a box canyon, the Granite Mountain Hotshots realized that flames had trapped them.

Here, in a tangle of scrub oak, bear grass and agave, they tried to escape beneath emergency blankets.

Here, within view of the community, the heat and smoke became too much. A firestorm melted protective shelters, cracked granite boulders and incinerated every living thing.

During a tour Tuesday of the Yarnell Hill Fire fatality scene, the first public viewing since the June 30 tragedy, authorities offered new revelations about how the Prescott-based crew got trapped.

They said questions about key safety protocols were irrelevant because the hotshots had been changing locations, rather than attacking the wildfire, when they were overcome. Thus, there was no lookout, no preplanned escape route or safety zone.

But beyond details of what may have happened, and why, this hallowed ground is a place of pain and honor, planned as a future memorial.

"The horror is incredible," Jerry Payne, Arizona's deputy state forester, said as another firefighter knelt beside a hotshot's shirt draped over the charred remains of a prickly-pear cactus.

"I'm sickened. And I'm saddened for 10 widows," added Darrell Willis, division chief with the Prescott Fire Department. "I don't want them to have died in vain."

Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona State Forestry Division, shook his head slowly.

"There are a number of whys and whats and what-ifs that you just have to realize we cannot answer," he said. "Those answers died with the crew."

Nevertheless, authorities offered the first clear, public account of what they believe transpired that Sunday. They said the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been cutting fire lines along a ridge more than a mile to the north, attempting to flank a relatively calm blaze, when winds picked up.

The crew's spotter, Brendan McDonough, was forced to leave his lookout post and use an escape route, joining the nearby Blue Ridge Hotshots before reaching safety in Yarnell.

Meanwhile, the Granite Mountain team led by Eric Marsh, a veteran superintendent, abandoned efforts to cut a fire line and climbed along a ridge road to a point where Yarnell was visible to the east. Willis and Payne said the hotshots at that point could have safely hiked to an area previously blackened by the fire, but instead began descending a saddle into what would become the valley of death.

Although weather alerts had been issued and received, Willis said, he is convinced the men were not yet scrambling for safety. Instead, he believes they were moving down to save a ranch house and other buildings at the base of the bowl-shaped valley.

"Their goal is life and property - to protect that," Willis said. "There's a lot of talk about risk management. (But) the job of wildland firefighting is inherently dangerous. ... It was a judgment that they made."

As the men struggled down a steep, chaparral-choked slope - probably around 4 p.m. - prevailing winds kicked up and reversed direction. A thunderstorm generated severe gusts. The fire's flank became its head. Flames surged 4 miles in just 20 minutes.

The hotshots had no lookout at that point, and they could not see the blowup because surrounding hills obstructed the view.

Willis and Payne said they believe flames hooked around the men via nearby canyons while sky-borne embers were blown overhead and to the east, igniting spot fires. In a matter of minutes, their only escape was cut off. The men faced a wall of flame moving at 12 mph.

"This was the most extreme fire behavior I'd ever witnessed," Willis said. "They had fire on both sides of them. They had fire behind them. And they had fire ahead of them."

Payne and Willis said there is evidence the men began cutting brush and small trees with chain saws, trying to create a safe clearing for themselves. In a radio transmission, they announced plans to set a backfire - a defensive blaze that would be sucked toward the main fire, creating a buffer of safety.

Then came a final communication: Hotshots were deploying emergency shelters.

Willis, who helped found the nation's only municipal hotshot team, said the Granite Mountain members fought and died as one.

"The voice of what actually happened, we'll never know," he noted. "I can tell you they died with honor. They stuck together."

The bodies were found in a slight swale amid a scattering of blackened stones and charred plants - an area now surrounded by fence.

Willis rejected any second-guessing about decisions or safety procedures. As wildfires evolve, he said, hotshots adjust their locations and tactics. It is not unusual during those transitions, he said, to move without a lookout, and it is impossible to have pre-established escape routes or safety zones.

"I would have gone with that crew blindfolded," Willis said. "It's a risky business, but they don't take undue risks. You can call it an accident. I just think God had a different plan for those men."

An investigative team is expected to complete a detailed report on the fire fatalities in late August or early September.

In the meantime, Payne said, "The hardest part about all of this for me is: What can we learn? Can we help other firefighters in the future?"

During Tuesday's tour, wildfire officials distributed an open letter that Marsh, the superintendent, had written about the Granite Mountain Hotshots before his death:

"We are positive people," he wrote. "We take a lot of pride in being friendly and working together.

"To our families and friends, we're crazy. Why do we want to be away from home so much, work such long hours, risk our lives and sleep on the ground 100 nights a year? Simply, it's the most fulfilling thing any of us have ever done."

The letter closes by noting that hotshots are husbands, fathers and boyfriends:

"We are not nameless or faceless, we are not expendable, we are not satisfied with mediocrity, we are not willing to accept being average, we are not quitters."

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