A preliminary report released Saturday reveals that fast-moving flames trapped the 19 hotshots on Yarnell Hill before they were able to retreat. The crew had cleared the area surrounding a ranch house as a safety zone, but, fanned by extreme winds, the fire overran their position before they were able to safely draw back, Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman told The Arizona Republic.
As an emergency measure, they deployed their aluminum pup tents—emergency shelters that deflect heat—but autopsies conducted by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner revealed that the 19 hotshots died from burns and inhalation.
The crew was fighting to keep the fire from the mountain town of Yarnell when shifting winds blew the blaze their way. Officials have yet to release an official chronology of the fire, but between 4 and 5 p.m., wind shifted 180 degrees and doubled in strength. The fire's cloud collapsed in on itself, sending smoke and heat into the canyons.
Brendan McDonough, the team's 20th member, was assigned as a lookout. As his position came under fire, he retreated, radioing commanders that his location had been breached, and warning the others about the fire's changing direction.
At about that time, crew boss Eric Marsh radioed that his team was falling back to the clearing. “It was just, ‘Hey, we’re in a bad spot. We gotta move,’" Ward said. “Knowing Eric, there was no indication they were in the trouble they were in.”
Moments later, Marsh's voice again came over the radio. “They did not have enough time,” Ward said. “They could not reach their objective. They were going to use their shelters. He was very calm. ... And then the next transmission was, simply, ‘Deploying.’ That was it. Very calm.”
For more on the fire, read Outside editor and former hotshot Kyle Dickman's reaction to the tragedy.