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Yarnell Hill fire: A year of agonized, unanswered questions



Tuesday, July 15, 2014
YARNELL, Ariz. — Wildland fire chief Darrell Willis tore along the highway and turned on his truck’s headlights to cut the smoke. Ash and embers rained down around him.

Over the past two days, in June 2013, a small mountain fire had come to life, a monstrous life. He’d just learned that his team of crack firefighters had deployed their emergency shelters, thin blankets of aluminum and silica they carried as a last refuge.

Now he was careening toward the south end of the fire, down where they were. He grabbed his cellphone and called his wife. “Pray with me,” he told her.

He saw two shapes on the closed highway and stomped on his brakes. As if summoned from a dream, two horses emerged from the smoke and galloped toward him, wild with fear. Then they veered and disappeared into the blackness. Willis stepped on the gas.

He pulled into the parking lot at the Ranch House restaurant, where several dozen firefighters and refugees had gathered. Shock filled their eyes as they stared across Highway 89 at the fire.

Willis’ heart leapt when he saw Brendan McDonough, a member of his 20-man team of wildland firefighters.

But McDonough was alone. Willis’ stomach did the math before his head could. He felt a ball of nausea start to rise.

Together they watched silently as the fire advanced across the valley, leaping from house to house. Huge propane tanks exploded and sailed through the air.

A helicopter hovered over the blackened site where the team had deployed their shelters. “We’ve got 18 confirmed dead,” a paramedic radioed in.

Willis felt himself pull away from the world, as though seeing the scene through the wrong end of his binoculars.

The radio crackled again.

“No, make that 19.”

So young

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were so young that Willis, 59, regarded them as sons. In the months to come, the veteran fire commander would pore over maps, diagrams and photographs, searching for answers in the landscape, in the heavens and in himself for the June 28 blaze that swept across Yarnell Hill and became one of the nation’s deadliest wildland fires.

Now, nearly a year later, two state investigations have failed to answer the enduring mystery of the blaze: How did a highly trained crew of professional hotshots come to leave their designated safety zone and walk into a 40-foot-high wall of fire?

Willis sat in his truck on the same highway to Yarnell one recent afternoon, a map spread across the steering wheel.

“There is a mystery,” he said. “It’s just . “

He gathered the map in his lap, and his face folded in as well.

“Why?”

Worked as one

Their yellow flame-resistant shirts always looked smart. They marched in single file. With choreographed precision, they removed their chain saws from cabinets built into the side of their trucks. The Granite Mountain Hotshots worked with the purpose of a single mind.

Part of it was Willis himself: His men always wanted to please him. He had a warm manner and a broad, gap-toothed grin. His smile was the only unrepentant thing about him; he prayed regularly with his men, invited them to church. He had an idea that firefighting was more than an earthly pursuit.

As a boy in Kingman, Ariz., Willis listened each day for the town siren. When it sounded, he ran to start the family car, and climbed into the passenger seat to wait for his father, a volunteer firefighter. Together they responded to calls.

Later, he became a fireman himself, working his way up to lead the department in Prescott, Ariz. It was a small town surrounded by desert tinder - stunted, oily chaparral — that threatened to burn the place over at any moment.

At his house outside town, Willis hung a goofy sign that read: “A fireman lives here with his old flame.” In the front yard, a ceramic Dalmatian stared eternally at a fire hydrant.

Willis eventually stepped aside as fire chief to focus on building a wildlands fire division and a hotshot crew prepared to take on the menace that lurks in the desert when the summer temperatures hit 115 degrees. In 2008, after four years of strenuous training, the Granite Mountain team won recognition as the nation’s first municipal hotshot crew.

Eric Marsh, the man Willis picked as field leader, had grown up in North Carolina. Even starting with his Little League ball team there, he seemed able to pull together and direct others.

“It wasn’t that he just took over as captain,” said his father, John Marsh. “He had a natural ability. People followed him.”

By the time he reached Appalachian State, he stood 6-foot-1 and spoke with a deep voice. When he read the school’s motto — “To be, rather than to seem” - it resonated within him, his father said.

Marsh had spent summers on wilderness fire crews in Arizona, and eventually made it to hotshot crews. Hotshot teams accepted only the fittest applicants, and they tackled the toughest jobs. They hiked over mountains, forded rivers, lugged their gear through heartless terrain. The entire culture - the eternal test of character and physical resolve — appealed to Marsh for reasons he didn’t speak of often.

Influential essay

The philosopher William James figured that man yearns to set himself against something, for better or worse. James, a pacifist, in 1910 published an influential essay called “The Moral Equivalent of War.”

In it he called for men to cease fighting each other and instead to make “warfare against nature.”

Less than a month later, nature dealt the war’s inciting blow.

That summer was hot and dry, and by late August hundreds of small fires sprang to life throughout the Western states. A front of cold wind blew in, uniting the small fires into two enormous ones that burned across parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana. The U.S. Forest Service was overmatched, and the fire eventually killed 87 people, most of them firefighters. People called it the Big Blowup.

America’s leaders needed no further persuading. They set in place the paramilitary — and sometimes directly military — model that defines wildland firefighting to this day.

High desert hills

Yarnell Hill is a 5,959-foot peak in the Weaver Mountains, a line of high desert hills southwest of Prescott.

The western side drops in a series of cliffs toward the small town of Congress. The east side slopes into a valley that includes Peeples Valley to the north and, to the south, Yarnell, a former gold mining town on State Highway 89, now home to about 650 people.

Lightning struck at 5:30 p.m. Friday, June 28, 2013, as Jim and Shelley Kuempel watched from their front porch in Glen Ilah, a neighborhood of Yarnell. As smoke rose, Jim swung his hunting scope to get a better look. A small blaze was burning at the crest.

“Better call it in,” he said.

On the other side of the mountains, Congress Fire Chief Virgil Suitor saw the same fire. His phone rang. The small Yarnell fire department was mostly volunteers, and they needed help. The fire was on state-owned land, so Suitor called the state dispatcher to report that he was sending his men.

“Stand down,” the dispatcher said. A state crew would fight this one. But the terrain was rugged. It would have to wait until morning.

In another part of town, Woody Grantham also spotted the fire. Grantham was a pilot who had flown for the Forest Service for decades, bombing fires with retardant. Now, he owned an enormous ranch in central Arizona, part of which reached into Yarnell. When he woke up Saturday morning and saw the fire still burning, alarms rang in his mind. He raced through a checklist of dangerous fire conditions:

The hill and valley sloping east bristled with chaparral that had not burned in nearly half a century. If the fire came off the ridge, it would gorge on the low, thick manzanita trees.

If the fire breached the ridge and came down into the valley, the area’s stark hills could funnel it toward the communities that lie north and south.

Grantham called the only fire department in the area with a small airstrip, in Wickenburg, and offered to help. He said he received the same advice the Congress fire chief had.

Stand down.

Dawn is crucial time

The critical hours in fighting any fire are at dawn. During the night, humidity rises, temperatures drop, and the fire lies down, as firefighters say.

Around 10 a.m., the sun burns off the humidity, the temperature rises and the wind picks up. Once that happens, a wildland fire will do what it wants.

Early Saturday morning, the fire could probably have been doused with minimal effort, but the state of Arizona’s initial effort was, according to Grantham, “too slow, with an incoherent plan.”

The first crews sent to fight the fire were trained prisoners, even as the state turned away help from local fire departments. Later in the day Russ Shumate, the state’s incident commander, ordered single-engine air tankers, or SEATs, to drop payloads of 500 to 800 gallons of retardant on the fire.

The little planes made 15 drops by sundown, but they were, Grantham said, “spitting into the wind.”

By late Saturday the fire had gained ground, reaching 100 acres. That’s when Willis’ mobile phone rang. He had decades of experience protecting structures. The incident dispatcher wanted to know: Could he come help direct the effort?

“I’ve just gotten home from out of town,” he replied. “I’d love go to church tomorrow with my wife.” He’d be out to help after that, he said.

After a few more hours, the fire had grown to 300 acres.

Willis’ phone rang again. This time, it was Shumate. They needed help in Yarnell.

Late Saturday night, the top officers on the fire, including Shumate and Willis, met in Yarnell’s fire station. They’d been lucky that day. The fire had burned out of control but they hadn’t lost any structures. No one had died.

They decided the next day would be different. They’d go after the fire early, and overwhelm it.

Willis said Shumate placed an order for heavy air tankers at dawn. Without fail.

Fire had grown

By Saturday evening, the Arizona Forestry Division had sent a request to the Southwest Coordinating Center in Albuquerque, N.M., which oversees the deployment of firefighting teams throughout the region. They needed hotshots. The fire had grown.

Dispatchers examined a list of available hotshot crews. Federal guidelines allow crews to work 14 days on a fire before taking off two days. The Granite Mountain team had just finished a busy stretch, working 13 straight days.

The better-rested Blue Ridge Hotshots were dispatched by the coordinating center.

But according to dispatch logs, a state Forestry Division dispatcher sent an email directly to Eric Marsh, summoning the Granite Mountain crew for early the next morning. The logs do not indicate why.

Marsh agreed to the request. It is unclear whether he knew another crew had been dispatched.

The exchange of messages was extraordinary, according to Stephen Pyne, a well-known fire historian and former firefighter. “They self-deployed on an email,” he said. Usually, he said, there’s a chain of command, communication between the agencies, official deployment orders. “No one does that. No one.”

Fire grows

Before dawn Sunday morning, a collection of beat-up pickup trucks gathered in the parking lot at the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ station.

Marsh briefed the crew. The Yarnell Hill fire had started small but grown to hundreds of acres, he told them. Nothing special for a hotshot crew. After the meeting, as the men prepared their gear and boarded the buggies, Marsh called Willis.

“Hey chief, we’ve been dispatched to the Yarnell Hill fire,” he said.

“Oh, hey, I’m down here!” Willis told him.

“I hope we get to work with you, then,” Marsh said.

“I hope so too,” Willis told him. “Be safe.”

The road to Yarnell is a twisting, mountainous route, and Granite Mountain’s big white buggies arrived about 8 a.m. The command team had by then divided the valley in half, east and west. Granite Mountain would work in the western, rocky half. The incident commander put Marsh in charge of the western effort. That meant he would scout ahead of the crew searching for strategic advantages against the fire. Marsh’s right-hand man, ex-Marine Jesse Steed, would take over as temporary leader of the hotshot crew.

The fire’s main front - what the crew called its head - burned north, away from Yarnell. The hotshots stood on the fire’s heel. Crewman Wade Parker, 22, called his mother, Michelle. The fire should be “short and quick,” he said. He should be able to spend some time with her that night.

It was 10 a.m., though, and the fire was awakening.



Like a sentinel, Willis watched the blaze march toward him with 50-foot-high flames. For the first time, he felt real anxiety.

It had been manageable the night before. The breeze was gusty but relatively light. The fire had grown to 300 acres, but two well-trained hotshot crews were being deployed to surround it and knock it down. The threat to Yarnell, an old mining town southeast of the blaze, and Peeples Valley, a few miles north, still seemed small.

Plans had been laid to launch small planes at dawn to drop retardant, followed by big-bellied water tanker aircraft. But dawn had come and gone, and there was no sign of the planes.

State dispatch logs show that small single-engine air tankers, or SEATs, were launched not at dawn, but close to 9 a.m. By 10 a.m., as Willis faced those 50-foot flames, the big DC-10 tankers were finally being called in — but the first wouldn’t arrive with its 12,000-gallon load for several hours.

The fire was edging toward Peeples Valley, where Willis and several other firefighters watched wide-eyed as the flames grew to 80 feet by noon. They sensed the fire’s superiority.

They didn’t know it yet, but this third day of the Yarnell fire, June 30, 2013, would become a lesson in missed opportunities, bungled communications and the enduring power of nature to defy expectations.

Willis, one of the senior managers overseeing the multi-pronged firefighting effort, thought about his Granite Mountain Hotshots, deployed three miles south of where Willis stood, on the back side of the blaze closer to Yarnell. What was team leader Eric Marsh facing, out on that rocky ridge with spotty radio reception and tardy air support?

Willis knew Marsh. He knew the crew. They would not sit idle while a fire swept toward houses in their home county.

“If there’s no leadership, they’re going to take action.”

___

Marsh went out ahead of the crew on a scouting foray, moving north along the ridge of the Weaver Mountains. From that height, he could track the fire as it moved north through the valley.

Confusion took hold, as Marsh watched. His crew had set a “burnout” fire to keep the main blaze from whipping south toward Yarnell. But the two single-engine tankers swooped in and mistakenly doused the burnout. In seconds, the firefighting effort had lost a valuable chance to create a fire block and wasted two loads of retardant that were needed to the north. Plus, the planes would need half an hour to reload.

Peeples Valley was in trouble. By noon, a wall of flame more than a mile wide was bearing down on the little community as people fled their homes and ranches. Two DC-10 tankers dropped a massive load of retardant on the flames, but the hour was late.

Marsh sent 21-year-old Brendan McDonough — Donut, everyone called him — to serve as lookout, a position usually reserved for the most experienced crew members. McDonough took up a position on a rocky knoll in the valley, east of the team and about 700 feet below them. So the crew had now split into three parts: Marsh on the ridge to the north; the main body of the crew, observing the fire from near the site of the lightning strike that started the whole thing; and McDonough, serving as a lookout on the outcropping.

McDonough’s job was to watch the fire and the weather. Once an hour, he swung a tethered thermometer over his head, noted the reading, then dipped the thermometer in water, whipped it around several more times, and compared wet and dry readings. He consulted a chart that gave him relative humidity, and the results didn’t look good: Eighteen percent relative humidity. Sixteen percent. Fourteen percent.

Meanwhile, the weather service warned of a thunderhead. During summer, the sun heats the land more quickly than it does the sea, and the hot air rises, drawing cooler air from the sea. Once enough cool air stacks up, the flow reverses, blowing down and out across the land.

As McDonough took his measurements, a tower of cool air was building up over the valley, ready to crash down on the fire below.

___

Most of the few hundred people who live in Peeples Valley had fled, and by about 2 p.m. an evacuation notice went out for Yarnell as well.

In the Glen Ilah neighborhood, Bob and Ruth Hart carried on unaware. He was 94 and she was 89. Most days they got in their nightclothes by late afternoon, watched television a bit, and turned in early. Today would be no different. They couldn’t hear the sheriff’s deputies driving past, shouting into bullhorns: Get out. Hurry.

___

At 4:04 p.m., the hotshots watched from the ridge, seemingly at ease, still near the site of the lightning strike. It was the oldest part of the burned-over area. Firefighters call it the black — a place where, because there’s nothing left to burn, it is relatively safe to stand.

Marsh’s voice crackled over the radio on Jesse Steed’s shoulder. Steed, the 36-year-old team captain who was in charge while Marsh was up ahead, had the volume turned up so all the guys could hear. Marsh had sensed a shift in the fire’s momentum.

The men needed to find a way out.

“Copy that,” Steed said.

___

About that time, McDonough watched the fire approach his lookout perch. He had picked a feature in the landscape about a quarter-mile away as a trigger point. The fire crossed it, and McDonough radioed Steed: He would have to retreat.

Steed sounded calm. “OK, cool,” he said.

The fire kept advancing, and McDonough began to wonder if he would be able to pull out fast enough. He began to toy with the worst decision a wildland firefighter can face: whether to deploy his personal fire shelter. Each hotshot carries in his pack a thin aluminum pup tent to pull out when all hope of escape has passed. It protects its occupant from radiant heat, but only to a point: It melts on contact with flame.

In the end, it wasn’t necessary. Salvation came in the form of one of the federal crews, the Blue Ridge Hotshots. Beating their own retreat, they picked up McDonough and the Granite Mountain vehicles — knowing they wouldn’t be reachable by the crew — and headed back toward Yarnell.

On the ridge, Marsh rejoined the rest of the crew. They could stay put in the relative safety of the burned-out area, but they would be trapped there for the duration of the fight as the fire swept toward Yarnell. Or they could move, and stay in the fight.

If they moved, they faced another set of choices. They could head north along the ridge and circumnavigate the entire southbound fire — a slow process that might render them useless. Or they could hustle south along the ridge and try to beat the fire to Yarnell. Along that route, they knew, there was Boulder Springs Ranch, a large, brush-cleared area where they could hunker down if things got crazy.

They decided to move south, ahead of the fire.

The decision was a clear deviation from the crew’s fire plan, and in the firefighting world, the fire plan is law. It had been conceived in the calm before they entered the valley. It outlined two escape methods: flee in their buggies, which were now gone, or stand in the black — the place they had now decided to leave.

Instead of notifying fire commanders and pilots who might be looking for them, Marsh lapsed into half an hour of radio silence.

In a photo one of them took, the men are walking behind their leader with purpose, bent forward. The sawyers sling their chain saws over their shoulders, like rifles.

Wade Parker sent a text message to his mother to say he might be late visiting her that evening: “We’re going down to protect this ranch.”

As they hiked along the ridge, the column of air overhead finally crashed down, sending the fire south at about 30 feet per second.

The crew dropped from the ridge into a bowl, surrounded almost completely by steep slopes. Heavy brush covered the canyon — they had left the black now, and entered the perilous green — and the canyon walls blocked their view of the fire. To the east, they could see an opening, and beyond it lay the ranch.

The crew was within a couple hundred yards of the ranch when the fire rounded the corner of the hill.

They were trapped.

They couldn’t push through the fire. They couldn’t outrun it, back up the ridge. They had two minutes until it overtook them.

In retreat

With the fire approaching at the speed of a fast-moving car, the Granite Mountain crew retreated to the sparsest part of the bowl. The sawyers cut down as much chaparral as possible, hoping to create a clearing where they could ride out the fire.

At 4:40 p.m., Marsh radioed to see if one of the air crews could help them.

“Yeah, I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots,” he called to the dispatcher.

“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 shelters.”

“OK, copy that,” the air coordinator answered. “So you’re on the south side of the fire then?”

Marsh began yelling now. “Affirm!”

He wanted a plane to drop retardant directly on the crew. But columns of smoke rose 30,000 feet from the valley floor, obscuring the pilots’ view. Ash had started to mix with drizzle from the thunderstorm, smearing the windshields of the planes and helicopters. No one could see.

Other firefighters listened in, horrified by the sound of Granite Mountain’s saws in the background. They knew what it meant.

Marsh’s radio had a range of three or four miles. Willis was just out of reach, at his post on the fire’s north side. At one point, he heard a wisp of urgent radio chatter, but couldn’t make sense of it. He kept working, supervising the mop-up effort in Peeples Valley.

As wind entered the canyon where the hotshots were huddled, it moved from a broad, open area into a narrow space full of fuel and heat; the canyon had become the definition of a jet engine.

Marsh and his men moved as one. They pulled their protective shelters out of their packs. They lay down, according to their training, and prepared to face an overwhelming enemy.

The aftermath

After the heat dissipated, investigators combed the area. Then Willis entered the canyon with a few other firefighters to take care of the bodies.

He felt an unfamiliar sensation. He felt scared. Of what, it was hard to say.

Wade Parker’s father, Danny, a firefighter himself, went with Willis. Like so many people in the area, and like so many of the crew members themselves, Danny held a strong faith. In the charred landscape, he lowered himself to his knees beside the body bags and prayed.

Willis had brought his Bible. He opened it to Psalm 23, and read aloud. Because they knelt, surely, in the valley of the shadow of death.

Then Parker took up his son, and carried him to the truck that would take the bodies away.

A ceremony for the Granite Mountain Hotshots was held at the convention center in Prescott Valley several days later in paramilitary style. Organizers called it the Salute to the Heroes, and firefighters from around the nation arrived in their Class A uniforms. A pipe and drum corps marched to the beat of a single snare. Vice President Joe Biden paid tribute.

Willis stepped to the podium. “I would have followed them blindfolded into the place where they were at,” he said.

People don’t understand that sort of devoutness, he said later. But he tells them: Sometimes faith is all a man has.