Yesterday evening, 19 wildland firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite 20-member crew based out of Prescott, Arizona, died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire, a 2,000-acre blaze southwest of Prescott. This is the biggest wildland firefighting tragedy since 1994, when 14 firefighters were killed on Colorado’s South Canyon Fire, and it recalls the Mann Gulch blaze that burned over 12 smokejumpers in 1949. The reports are incomplete, but this is what’s known.
On Friday, a lightning strike ignited the Yarnell Hill fire in chaparral and grass a mile and half outside of the 650-person town of Yarnell. The fire grew to 800 acres. Because of its proximity to town, it was designated a national priority and an emergency management team and 200 firefighters—state, city, and federal—were brought in. Like most of the firefighters on scene, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only city-funded hotshot crew in the nation (most are federal or state), were tasked with protecting houses and building a fuel break along the blaze’s eastern flank.
Around 3:30 P.M. on Sunday, with temperatures in the 100s and humidity in single digits, a thunderstorm moving northeast to southwest over Prescott, 30 miles away, funneled 40-50 miles per hour winds down canyons and directly over the blaze. Reports suggest the hotshots were building a fuel break on the edge of the flames when the winds hit and the fire jumped their line. At some point soon after, the crew deployed their shelters, aluminum pup tents that deflect heat and are used only in the most dire of situations.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the nearby Wickenburg Community Hospital was told to expect injured firefighters. Shortly after, they were told none were coming. The entire crew—one hotshot had not gone out on the line that shift—had been burned over and killed. Some two hundreds homes were also lost.
Some detail of what happened on the line will emerge over the coming days, but it will be months before a full investigation is released. If you’re interested in learning more about the men and women who died yesterday, Connor Radnovich of the Cronkite News wrote a poignant and now-tragic story about a training day in April when the Granite Mountain Hotshots practiced deploying their fire shelters. At one point, Daniel McCarty, one of the senior firefighters on the crew, told the reporter,, “In any other job, you don’t have to worry about your life day in and day out.” To help support the families of the victims, please go to wwfoundation.org.
Read Kyle Dickman's firsthand account of fighting wildfires in California from our July issue.