19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire
On the morning of June 30, all 20 members of Prescott, Arizona's Granite Mountain Hotshots headed into the mountains to protect the small town of Yarnell from an advancing blaze. Later that day, every man but one was dead. Through interviews with family, colleagues, and the lone survivor, a former hotshot pieces together their final hours—and the fatal choices
Yarnell, Arizona, a former gold-mining town of 650 people, sits on a precipice at the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. Rising above it are the 6,000-foot peaks of the Weaver Mountains, and nearly 2,000 feet below are the flatlands and cactus of the Sonoran Desert. An hour and a half northwest of Phoenix and an hour south of Prescott, Yarnell is, according to the town’s slogan, “Where the desert breeze meets the mountain air.”
Weekend drivers coming into Yarnell from the south know they’ve hit town when they see the Ranch House Restaurant, a greasy spoon where the waitresses all look related and the clientele ride Harleys or horses. Across the street is Glen Ilah, a subdivision with a couple hundred homes owned mostly by retirees like Truman Farrell, a 73-year-old Air Force veteran who up until two years ago was the town’s volunteer fire chief.
On the night of June 28, Truman’s wife, Lois, was sitting on their back patio in her usual spot by the grape trellises and the koi pond. From there the couple have a sweeping view of the Weaver range to the north, and Lois was watching a dry thunderstorm hung up on the range’s crest. She saw lightning strike the ridgetop and, a short while later, wispy blue smoke drifting toward the clouds. When Lois pointed it out to Truman, he thought little of it.
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Around 7:30 the following night, Robert Caldwell walked through the front door of his downtown home in Prescott. “Zion!” he said as he lifted his five-year-old stepson into his arms, kissed his wife, Claire, and flopped down in a chair at the kitchen table with a can of Coors. At 23, he was the youngest of three squad bosses, a senior position that put him in charge of nine men on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of wildland firefighters based out of Prescott.
“Go get comfortable, would ya?” said Claire. “You smell like Robert.” By this she meant go clean up because you smell like you usually do: like smoke.
Robert didn’t want to get up. He’d barely been home since his last time off nearly two weeks ago, and sitting, even in his fire boots, ash-smudged work pants, and sweat--crusted Granite Mountain T-shirt, felt good. Family time was precious during the eight-month fire season, lasting from April through November. He and Claire had been married for a little less than a year, and it still felt like the honeymoon. She was the hippie chick eight years older with an easy laugh; he was the cowboy gentleman wise beyond his years. Robert had an IQ high enough for Mensa and a love of Hemingway. Hotshotting was his identity. He’d fought fire for five seasons, and after two of Granite Mountain’s squad bosses left in March, he was promoted. It was one of the six full-time positions on the crew.
Since April, he and his Granite Mountain colleagues had spent 26 shifts on fires. The week before, they got some local press for saving a few hundred high-dollar homes from the 6,700-acre Doce Fire, a national priority that burned the crew’s namesake, a 7,290-foot peak visible from nearly anywhere in Prescott. For the nation’s only municipally funded hotshot crew, saving homes was a big deal, and the town was calling them heroes. The praise made the crew uncomfortable, especially Robert, who felt that getting paid to camp and work fires in the most beautiful places in the West was closer to selfish than heroic. But it was nice to be acknowledged.
That night the family ate dinner together at the kitchen table. After putting Zion to bed, Robert drank a cup of coffee while Claire did the dishes, then he pulled her into the bedroom. Before nodding off, Robert removed his wedding ring. “It’s filthy,” he said, showing it to Claire, who lay in the crook of his arm. Ash covered the edges, and the silver was scuffed from the handle of his Rhino, the hoe-like tool he used to dig on fires. Claire took the band and rolled it between her fingers and thought, What if someday this is all I have left?
Photos from Yarnell Hill
Photos from Yarnell Hill and portraits of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.See Photos→
Across town, three other Granite Mountain hotshots—Christopher MacKenzie, Garret Zuppiger, and Brendan “Donut” McDonough—arrived at the Whiskey Row Pub, a dive in Prescott’s historic downtown. When the hotshots came to drink in groups, as they often did on rare days off, bartender Jeff Bunch gave them a discount. His son was a former crew member.
The trio sat by the pool tables in the back of the bar. Donut hadn’t seen Garret, a red-bearded 27-year-old, or Chris, his roommate and a nine-year veteran of firefighting, in a couple of days. Strange as it was, Donut (his nickname was easier to say than his last name) had missed his hotshot brothers. He’d come down with a cold on Thursday night and taken Friday and Saturday off.
“Donut, what the fuck are you wearing?” Garret asked. He had on a pink tank top: an easy target. The hazing went around the table, moving from Donut’s style to Chris’s poorly trained dog, Abbey, to Garret’s obsession with vinyl records, before the conversation eventually landed, as it always did, on the job.
“Any idea what the assignment is?” asked Donut. “All I heard was we got work.” He was feeling better and eager to get back on the fire line. Tomorrow was Sunday, an overtime day—nearly $20 an hour.
“More staging, I think,” said Chris. “We’ve been busting little lightning fires since you left.”
Seven small blazes had ignited in the mountains around Prescott during the thunderstorm the previous night. One of them, sparked by the lightning strike Lois and Truman had seen on Friday, had become a higher priority blaze after growing to 100 acres. It had been given a name: the Yarnell Hill Fire. About the time the hotshots were finishing their beers, the incident commander, the general on the fire, had set up headquarters at the volunteer fire station in Yarnell and was ordering additional resources as fast as he could: eight engines, structure-protection specialists, air tankers, and three hotshot crews. Granite Mountain was one of them.
Eric Marsh woke up around 5 A.M. on Sunday at the crew’s quarters, Station 7. The night before, the 43-year-old superintendent of Granite Mountain had eaten dinner with his wife, Amanda, at the Prescott Brewpub downtown. Afterward she drove home; he crashed at the station, a tin-sided building on a patch of blacktop six blocks from the restaurant. Sleeping there seemed easier than driving the 30 minutes to their horse ranch outside town, in nearby Chino Valley.
The crew called Eric “Papa,” and at home, with Amanda, he referred to the 19 young men as his kids. Until they got to know him, Eric intimidated most of the hotshots. He was quiet, wry, and guarded—in many ways, a typical superintendent. Amanda was his third wife, but he rarely discussed his personal life with the crew. He once drove his men 16 hours from Prescott to a fire in Idaho and didn’t say a word until they reached the flats of the Utah desert. “I’m getting a divorce,” he said, then remained silent until they reached the fire camp.
Eric grew up on a ten-acre farm in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and fell in love with hotshotting when he joined a Forest Service crew as a second-year student studying biology at Appalachian State. He graduated in 1992. Five years later, he moved to Arizona to keep fighting fires, developing a reputation as a canny and cautious firefighter. In 2003, the Prescott Fire Department hired him to help with their fuels crew.
In the years prior, the city, which is surrounded on three sides by the Prescott National Forest, was named by the Hunt Research Corporation, a California-based risk-assessment group, as one of the West’s ten most likely places to be hit by a wildfire. Out of that danger grew the department’s vision for a fuels crew, one that removed brush and timber growing at the edge of town to provide defensible space. Eric was good at it. He and the crew used chainsaws and chippers to clear flammable material from around hundreds of Prescott homes, setting the National Fire Protection Association’s Gold Standard for defensible space in 2012. But for the longtime hotshot it wasn’t enough. In the hierarchy of wildland firefighting, there are few things less glamorous than a job that demands the same backbreaking work of a fire fight but delivers none of the thrill. Turning the Granite Mountain fuels crew from a wide-eyed group of 20 men not even allowed to set foot on the fire line into certified hotshots was Eric’s singular focus. He accomplished it in five years, an evolution that takes most crews twice that, some even longer.
Station 7, where the crew moved in 2011, was a point of pride for Eric. He and the wildland division of the fire department had spent the previous six years trying to convince the city council that it would be safer for Prescott to host hotshots rather than just a fuels crew. The station was proof of the department’s victory. Its new headquarters had a workshop, a gym, and a stocked gear cache with a sign on the wall that reads total cost for a well-equipped hotshot: $4000. Granite Mountain’s two $150,000 buggies, burly 12-person crew hauls kitted out with cubbies for medical equipment and tools, were parked in the garage. Eric’s superintendent truck, a Ford F-550 he’d customized with a welded-steel rack and brake lights in the shape of Granite Mountain’s logo, was in front.
After rolling out of his sleeping bag that Sunday morning, Eric headed to the parking lot, crossing the black tiles he’d helped install in the white floor to spell out “GMIHC—Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.” When rookies stepped on the black tiles, they owed the veterans 100 push-ups. He pulled out his JetBoil stove and a Nalgene full of Bisbee’s specialty coffee grounds—both of which he always carried in his fire-line gear—and brewed up a pot of coffee. Eric had been sober for 13 years. Coffee was his only drug, and he took it black. There was no milk or sugar on the fire line, so why get used to it any other way?
With his mug full, Eric went to the ready room, where the crew met every morning. On one wall hung a poster common in wildland fire stations. It shows pictures of wildland-fire fatalities, including the two biggest: Montana’s 1949 Mann Gulch Fire (13 deaths) and Colorado’s 1994 South Canyon Fire (14 deaths). In both, elite firefighters had been killed battling small blazes that grew with terrifying and unexpected speed. In both incidents, the crews burned to death after being caught off guard with no time to escape. how is your situational awareness today? the poster asks.
The Granite Mountain crew started arriving at Station 7 at 5:15 A.M. As they awaited the briefing, they sat in the ready room and talked about family and fires. Nearly half of them had children. On the wall were two whiteboards, one covered with a handful of random facts re-upped most mornings by a third-year sawyer named Andrew Ashcraft. That morning’s trivia: “A gorilla’s scientific name is Gorilla, Gorilla, Gorilla” and “Milk cows that listen to music produce more milk.” Robert Caldwell, who usually would have laughed while fact-checking the tidbits on his iPhone, ignored them. He’d been looking forward to days off and had a hard time leaving the house that morning.
On the other whiteboard was the Granite Mountain Hotshots Daily Physical Percentages, a half-joking, half-serious chart the crew used to take stock of each other’s energy levels, a matter of safety on the line. Eric had written “68%.” Donut put, “Hell ya.” Robert, or Bob as he was known only on the crew, put “Moderate Duty.”
By 5:40, they were all tipping back in their chairs. “We’ve got an assignment to Yarnell,” Eric said to the men. “It’s 300 acres and burning on a ridgetop in thick chaparral. It’s going to be hot—real hot—and that’s all I know.” It was exactly the sort of short, pointed briefing the crew had come to expect from their boss. “Load up.”
The sun had risen by the time the caravan crested the Bradshaw Mountains outside Prescott and descended into Skull Valley, north of Yarnell. Eric drove up front while the buggies followed close behind, with most of the hotshots sleeping inside. Robert Caldwell rode shotgun in one, trying to ignore the music—Rammstein’s “Du Hast”—blasting from the back of the truck. He texted Claire: “So much for days off. Heading to a 500-acre fire in Yarnell. Love you.”
His first sighting of the Yarnell Hill Fire would have come after rounding a bend just south of Rancho El Oso Road, eight miles from the blaze and on the outskirts of the horse ranches in Peeples Valley, a dispersed community of 428 people five miles north of Yarnell. For the team’s four rookies, like Robert’s cousin Grant McKee, whom Robert had talked into joining the crew that winter, the fire would have seemed entirely unimpressive: a few strands of white smoke drifting near the top of the ridge. Desert fires are deceptive, though, and Robert knew it. He’d worked blazes in the redwoods of California, the spruce stands of Minnesota, and the lodgepole thickets of Montana, but chaparral, where the Yarnell Hill Fire was burning, is a mix of scrub oak and brush that grows so dense it’s a struggle to walk through. When it’s dry, it’s a tinderbox. “It’s the brush that scares me most,” he used to tell his dad. “Fires just move faster in it.”
Arizona, like much of the Southwest, was in a severe drought. The monsoon, a low-pressure mass of moist air that pushes up from the Gulf of California and brings afternoon rains to the region every July, was moving into Arizona, but so far the influx of moisture had done little to cool the 100-plus-degree temperatures. The monsoon cycle had yet to bring any rain either, though its arrival pretty well guaranteed lightning.
The crew reached the incident commander’s makeshift base at Yarnell’s volunteer fire station by 8 A.M. The volunteers’ red trucks were in the engine bay, and a handful of 4x4 pickups from nearby state forests and local fire districts were backed into parking spaces. It was still quiet. Eric went inside for a 20-minute briefing from the fire’s operations supervisor Todd Abel, a Prescott-area firefighter with 18 years of experience. The blaze had been divided into eastern and western divisions, and Eric was placed in charge of the west, where Granite Mountain was assigned to work. With Eric overseeing the division, which would require him to move freely around his section of the fire, command of the hotshots fell to 36-year-old captain Jesse Steed.
“Men, gaggle up!” Eric called when he returned. “It’s a long hike in, so bring plenty of water.” Then, as he always did before leading the crew into a remote fire, he told his men to call their families.
Hotshots hike in single-file lines. Steed was up front. Behind him were the four two-man saw teams and squad boss Travis Carter, followed by Donut and the six other men carrying Pulaskis and hand tools, and finally squad bosses Robert Caldwell and Clayton Whitted, who were responsible for making sure the slowest hotshots didn’t drop off the back of the line. Robert watched the boot heels of the rookie in front of him. The dust the crew kicked up stuck to the sweat on his face.
A little more than a mile in, the thin road veered left and climbed 850 feet to the crest of the Weaver Mountains, where the fire was burning. It was now nearly 10 A.M. Temperatures were in the hundreds, and the last spots of shade had disappeared. Three times they stopped for water. Some hotshots, like Donut, carried 13 quarts that day—26 pounds of water that doubled the weight of their packs.
The fire, still around 300 acres, wasn’t doing much when they got there. It sat atop the ridge, which ran in a crescent shape toward Peeples Valley to the north. On the west flank, to their left, the blaze was held tight against the rim rock on the range’s crest. On the east flank, to their right, a few fingers of fire had burned down draws that drained toward the valley they’d hiked up.
The crew started building line, removing all the flammable fuel along the fire’s eastern flank. The sawyers went first, using their chainsaws to cut brush, while the swampers, the men responsible for clearing anything that has been cut, hauled it off the line and threw it down the mountain. Donut, Robert, and the rest of the hotshots followed behind, using Pulaskis, Rhinos, and rakes to clear away leaves and needles. Steed kept one ear to the radio while helping throw brush or cut line whenever he could.
Eric, who had gone ahead to scout, stood on the peak of the ridgeline above the crew, watching the fire burn north toward Peeples Valley. It was starting to build up steam. Like all seasoned firefighters, Eric was an amateur meteorologist, and he would have noticed the few small cumulus clouds, puffy seeds of thunderstorms, building to the north of the fire. Like giant vacuums, these clouds create wind, drawing in hot air and moisture rising from the desert floor as they grow. Eric knew that the bigger those clouds got, the stronger the vacuum and the faster the flames would be pulled toward the houses in Peeples Valley. It’s why the incident commander kept calling more hotshot crews, aircraft, and engines to the scene.
About the time Eric was scouting the fire, Marty Cole was “fiddle farting” in his garage in Chino Valley, a small ranching town just north of Prescott. He got the call to head to Yarnell to act as a safety officer, one of a few lead personnel converging on the fire.
Marty had worked for Prescott area fire departments for more than 30 years and is what’s known in the business as an old salt—an arbiter of firefighting culture and tradition. He started his fire career in 1980, well before the city launched its wildland-firefighting division. Back then, firefighter culture was so tribal that city, county, and federal departments refused to leave their jurisdictions. If a fire was burning inside city limits—wildland or otherwise—it was the city’s problem and nobody else’s. Marty remembers one of the first burned bodies he ever saw. “A young kid burned to death in a car fire,” he says. “Two blocks away, firefighters from the neighboring department sat inside their station and watched the smoke column rise.”
Many of those walls have since been torn down. But the tribalism still exists, and it’s strongest within the insular world of hotshots. Marty was the superintendent of Granite Mountain from 2004 to 2005, when Eric first joined and they were trying to become a hotshot crew.
It was a humbling process. At the time, every one of the roughly 100 hotshot crews in the nation was funded by states or the feds—the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs—and many of them had decades of tradition. Granite Mountain, a startup outfit hosted by a small town in Arizona that most other hotshots had never heard of, wasn’t exactly well received. The crew once showed up at a fire in Oregon in white ten-passenger vans. Real crews use buggies. When Granite Mountain went out to start work, a firefighter from another crew drew a line in the middle of the road with spray paint and wrote Don’t cross it.
“When I left, Eric had something to prove,” says Marty. “He was going to make that crew better than any other out there.”
From his scouting position, Eric could see one of two specially outfitted DC-10s—or VLATs, very large air tankers—fly 200 feet off the ground and drop 20,000 gallons of fire retardant between the flames and Peeples Valley.
He was concerned that the blaze could pivot and start burning down the valley toward Yarnell. If that happened, the flames would be below the crew, creating the same life-threatening situation that killed 13 men in the Mann Gulch Fire and helped spawn the ten standard firefighting orders, among them: know what your fire is doing at all times, and base all actions on current and expected fire behavior. Eric wanted to be certain that if this event unfolded, he had a dedicated lookout to warn him about it.
“Let’s send Donut down to be a lookout,” he told Steed. Eric picked Donut because he’d been sick—a slow day could help. “We’ll send him down with Blue Ridge’s supe.”
The Blue Ridge Hotshots, a crew out of the Coconino National Forest, had arrived on the scene that morning, and Granite Mountain could see the crew’s superintendent, Brian Frisby, on an off-road utility vehicle (UTV) motoring up the two-track in the valley to meet with Eric and coordinate their efforts.
The plan they agreed on was simple. Granite Mountain would keep building line on the fire’s eastern edge while Blue Ridge used their chainsaws to widen an old road that stood between the fire and Yarnell. If the winds shifted and the blaze ran toward town, Blue Ridge could set fire to the brush between the road and the wildfire, robbing it of the fuel it needed to survive. Given the fire’s steady chug to the north, it was a contingency plan.
Donut threw his gear in the back of the UTV and got a ride to a bluff in the valley that gave him a view of the fire. “Call me on tac”—a line-of-sight radio frequency—“if you need anything,” the Blue Ridge supe told Donut when he dropped him off. “We’ve got our eyes on you.”
Donut picked a good spot. The knoll he was perched on offered a clear view of the fire and an easy escape route. Just a few hundred yards behind him there was a safety zone, a patch of bare dirt a little larger than a tennis court that a bulldozer had cleared earlier that morning just in case things went haywire. He chose a trigger point, a small drainage a quarter of a mile away. If the fire crossed it, he’d retreat.
Not that the third-year veteran felt he was in any danger. The southern edge of the fire was nearly half a mile away, moving 50 feet an hour toward him, maybe less. He ate his MRE lunch—beef stew—and at the top of every hour “slung weather,” using the red book-size kit every lookout carries to record hourly changes in conditions. He took out a thermometer on a chain, dipped the cloth-covered end into his water bottle, and swung it at arm’s length for a minute to measure the humidity and temperature. At 2 P.M. he scratched into the kit’s notebook: “104 degrees, 10 percent humidity, five to ten-mile an hour winds with gusts of 15 out of the S” and a note referencing the clouds: “Build up to the SW.” Then he went back to fighting off boredom.
Donut can trace his interest in firefighting to a fire-science class he took as a 14-year-old kid. He came to Granite Mountain during hard times. In December 2010, he’d spent a couple of nights in jail for possession of a stolen GPS. Then, in March 2011, his girlfriend at the time gave birth to his little girl. He was working construction and taking an EMT class at the local community college at night, but on the occasions that he actually showed up for class, he mostly slept off hangovers or was still coming down from something else. “You name it, I tried it,” he says.
In mid-April, he awoke from a binge feeling the full weight of fatherhood. I need to stop this now, he thought. He asked the Prescott Fire Department if they had any openings and was directed to Eric Marsh, who was looking for five replacements. Donut told Eric the whole story—the jail time, the drugs, his dream of becoming a firefighter, his new baby. He was hired on the spot. Donut thinks he got the job because Eric “saw some of himself in me.”
By that time, Granite Mountain had been a full-fledged hotshot crew for three years. Eric had pulled off the feat by attracting experienced wildland firefighters, like Steed, with the one thing the Prescott Fire Department could offer that no other hotshot crew could: access to jobs on the city’s red trucks. Nearly a dozen Granite Mountain alumni now worked for the department as paramedics or structural firefighters—full-time, family-friendly positions that kept them closer to home. Eric, a certified instructor in both city and wildland firefighting, facilitated that transition by offering training courses throughout the year. That was especially important this season, during something of a rebuilding year, when there were nine crew members with less than two years of experience and a pair of green squad bosses in Robert Caldwell and Travis Carter. Eric’s classes got new crew members up to date on the certification Granite Mountain needed to retain its hotshot status, and the classes gave career-focused firefighters like Donut a way to become skilled hotshots and to grow out of it.
On Donut’s first full fire assignment, in 2011, Granite Mountain was flown by helicopter into Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, a range notorious among wildland firefighters for its steep and rugged terrain. He swung his Pulaski for two weeks, often working 16-hour days. The physical abuse nearly broke him, and most of the crew figured he’d wash.
After his first season, he’d proven himself to the rest of the men. Last year he got a tattoo on his calf of a frosted doughnut combined with Granite Mountain’s logo. “Now they tell me, ‘You’re slower than shit and look like a Neanderthal, but we know you won’t quit,’ ” Donut says. “They’re more my brothers than my actual brother.”
It’s a familiar story in hotshotting: the discipline and rigor of crew life puts wayward young men on track. But Granite Mountain had a more nurturing atmosphere than most crews. Clayton Whitted, a squad boss like Robert, was a former youth pastor at the Heights Church in Prescott. During some shifts on the fire line, the crew would openly discuss Jesus or ask Clayton to tell stories from the Bible. It was through him that Donut accepted Jesus as his savior, on a fire in New Mexico two weeks before Yarnell Hill. “Clayton, Steed, Eric—those guys had it figured out. They made people better,” Donut says. “I wanted a piece of that.”
At 3:30, Claire Caldwell, Robert’s wife, was at home in downtown Prescott, watering the pumpkins and sunflowers in her well-kept front yard. It was her last chore of the day, and she was rushing through it. She’d already dropped Zion off with his dad, where he’d stay the next couple of days, and planned to spend the evening relaxing on the couch with a bottle of wine and a movie.
The sky was nearly purple. Claire had just finished hosing down the garden when the wind hit. It was so strong that the sunflower blooms lay down across the raised beds. Moments later, the dry creek behind the Caldwells’ house filled with water for the first time that year. She texted Robert: “Hope this rain helps you guys out! You coming home tonight? Love you.”
It irritated her that he didn’t respond.
Like many Yarnell residents, Truman Farrell was standing on the edge of Highway 89 watching the wall of fire rip north through the chaparral and junipers toward the ranches and homes in Peeples Valley.
“God, it’s awful,” he said to his neighbors, Dan Schroeder and Dorman Olson, who were standing beside him with their two Scottie dogs. But it was also mesmerizing, even for Truman, a veteran of both Vietnam and Desert Storm.
“Look at that!” he said, as a VLAT passed overhead and unloaded its retardant just above them. “Now that’s really something to see.” Little flecks of red slurry landed on his gold Honda CRV. That morning he’d made an evacuation plan with Lois. If things got bad, he’d drive the motor home, towing the CRV, and she’d drive their pickup truck. “I think we’re going to watch Peeples Valley burn,” he said to his neighbors.
Indeed, by midafternoon, the flames had reached the doorsteps of the outer line of houses in Peeples Valley. But none of them would burn. At approximately 3:50 P.M., the wind began to shift. The thunderstorm stopped sucking in air and started blowing it out. The vacuum was now a leaf blower. Truman compares the way the fire bellowed to a volcanic eruption—a storm within a storm that was suddenly pivoting and heading straight toward Yarnell.
“Uh-oh,” he told his neighbors. “It don’t look good. That’s going right to Glen Ilah. We better go.”
“Division alpha, operations. Did you copy that weather report?”
“Affirmative,” replied Eric. “The winds are getting squirrelly up here. The dozer and retardant line have been compromised.”
Eric, who was acting as supervisor for the heel of the fire, was scouting out front of the crew on the ridgeline above Donut when the radio traffic came through.
“Are you in a good spot?”
“Affirmative. We’re in the black.”
Like Eric, the rest of the crew was in the island of ash the fire had left behind the day before. The brush was incinerated, and the chance of reburn was nil. It was the safest place they could be.
The operations supervisor requested air attack fly over Granite Mountain’s position. Once their location was confirmed, the focus of the fire fight shifted entirely to Yarnell. Granite Mountain was safe and sidelined.
Donut was less than a minute into slinging his 4 P.M. weather when Steed came back over the radio.
“Donut, you up?”
“They’re calling for a 180-degree wind shift and gusts of up to 60 miles per hour out of the northeast.”
He looked up at the approaching wall of flames and blinked. For the first time that afternoon, the wind was blowing at his face instead of his back. The flank that had been slowly backing down the valley had suddenly jumped to life. Two-foot flames had grown to twelve, and within moments the fire was running up a ridge on the east side of the valley and then south, directly at Donut.
“Steed, Donut. It hit my trigger point.” The fire had crossed the drainage on the valley floor only a quarter of a mile away. “I’m bumping back to the dozer push.”
“Alright, let me know when you get there. We’ve got eyes on you.”
Donut tossed on his pack and grabbed his gear as he started wading down through the brush field and boulders toward the safety of the clearing the bulldozer had created that morning.
Eric Marsh and Granite Mountain sat in the black ash on the ridgeline above Donut and watched the fire burn for nearly an hour. They rested and ate MREs for lunch.
Chris MacKenzie, Donut’s roommate, pulled out his camera and took a handful of stills. One shot was of sawyer Andrew Ashcraft taking a photo of the fire that he’d text to his wife. Another was of the column of smoke turning from bone white to black.
The hotshots who’d brought their phones texted or called their loved ones. Another sawyer, Scott Norris, who’d come to Granite Mountain this season after four years on a Forest Service hotshot crew in Payson, Arizona, texted with his girlfriend, Heather.
Heather: “I had a weird dream I proposed to Scott last night.” Then, “Oh, hi. That was meant for Sarah!”
Scott: “I’m a little old fashioned. I think
I’d like to be the one to propose.”
Scott: “Just watched a DC3 slurry bomber nearly collide midair with a Sikorsky helicopter.”
Heather: “Holy hell! That certainly would have made the news.”
Scott: “This fire is going to shit burning all over and expected 40+ mile per hour wind gust from t-storm outflow. Possibly going to burn some ranches and houses.”
And finally, when the fire was racing straight at Donut, Scott texted a final photo of flames filling the valley below them: “Holy shit! This thing is running at Yarnell!”
Donut couldn't see the flames behind the knoll he’d just come down from, but he knew from the moment he hit the safety zone that the fire was ripping. The smoke was dark. “I see you, Donut,” Steed called on the radio. It was good to hear his captain’s voice. Donut was running through options in his mind. The fire was winding up and would soon cut off his escape route down the two-track the crew had hiked up from Yarnell that morning. He could hightail it back toward the rest of the crew, but one look at the 800 feet of elevation he had to climb and he thought: Fuck no, I can’t outrun this.
His next option seemed worse: deploying his fire shelter, the bivy-sack-size aluminum tent that all wildland firefighters carry as a last resort. The shelters deflect heat but melt when hit directly by flames. Donut had been trained on what to do if left with no choice but to deploy. He’d throw his pack away. He’d bring a liter of water and his radio under the shelter, lie facedown and grab the fiberglass handles, and then, as he’d been instructed, he’d sing or hum or yell to anybody within earshot—just something to take his mind off the pain. He’d have to paw at the ground beneath his mouth and bury his nose in the cooler air below. Firefighters can survive interior temperatures of around 300 degrees, but not much hotter. Deployments have occurred 1,239 times since wildland firefighters started using the shelters in the 1960s, and only 22 have died.
The dozer push should have been big enough to survive a deployment, but it wasn’t something Donut cared to test. In 1994, an Arizona hotshot who deployed considered beating his head against a rock to knock himself unconscious. If he lived, he figured, at least he’d avoid the pain and wake up after the storm passed.
“Steed, Donut. I’m calling Blue Ridge.” He’d just keyed the mic to call when Blue Ridge’s superintendent, Brian Frisby, came around the corner on his UTV. When he’d heard the weather update on the radio, he immediately left his crew to collect Donut.
Donut threw his gear in the back and handed Brian the radio: “Call Steed and Eric.”
“I’ve got Donut. The fire’s making its push. We’re going to go back and bump your buggies.” Brian mashed on the gas and raced toward the teams’ vehicles.
The Granite Mountain crew could see Donut on the UTV racing across the flats. They could see the helicopters and air tankers pivoting from Peeples Valley to Yarnell and dozens of emergency vehicles, lights flashing, speeding down Highway 89 toward Glen Ilah, the subdivision where Truman lived. It would have been difficult for the hotshots, who had been trained to help however they can, to sit idly by and watch houses burn. They would have been thinking of their fellow firefighters placing themselves in harm’s way.
With conditions changing so dramatically, Eric and the crew’s leadership—Steed, Clayton, Travis, Robert—would have gathered for a moment on the ridge to discuss their options while the other hotshots sat perched on white granite boulders watching the drama unfold.
Do we hunker down in the black and do nothing but watch Yarnell burn? Or do we head down there, do some point protection, and try to save a couple of homes? Eric would have made the decision. He couldn’t have imagined that, by heading for town, he was leading his crew toward a series of increasingly compromised circumstances, each more desperate than the last.
He radioed out that Granite Mountain was moving back toward Yarnell.
Donut drove Eric’s supe truck to the edge of Yarnell. There, he and the Blue Ridge hotshots joined a few engine companies who were wetting and widening a contingency dozer line—a last effort to stop the fire from burning straight down Highway 89.
Donut radioed to Steed. “Buggies are parked. I’m with Blue Ridge. If you guys need anything, let me know.”
“Copy. I’ll see you soon.” It was the last time Donut spoke to Steed.
“We've got to go now!” Truman yelled to Lois as he rushed toward their front door. She was coming out of the house, her arms full of things to load into their RV.
“Why?” she said. The smoke wasn’t blowing over the house.
“Because if we don’t, we’ll die!”
Lois snapped out of it. She could now see the black smoke blowing through the oak trees outside her living room windows.
Truman grabbed a vial of holy water he’d taken from church two months before and sprinkled it on the front door, silently saying a quick prayer before he raced toward the couple’s motor home.
Out front, a little white truck was circling the neighborhood. Lea Way, a local nurse practitioner, was leaning out the window warning the residents. “Everybody out! Everybody get out!”
Just minutes after Donut started working with the Blue Ridge crew to hastily build a new contingency line closer to town, Blue Ridge’s superintendent and squad bosses told them to load back into the buggies. Fist-size embers sailed over the crew like a volley of flaming arrows. Radio transmissions were lost to the roar of the wind. Nothing more could be done. They’d lost Yarnell.
When the flames hit Glen Ilah, Truman and Lois had to turn on their headlights to see through the smoke as they entered the caravan of cars fleeing the subdivision. Just across the street, a tornado of fire was twirling through the neighbors’ houses. Later he’d call it the day of the dragon—a ball of flame blown from the mouth of an unseen beast. He’d lived through two wars but had never felt so close to death.
Down the street, a 90-year-old couple, the Harts, didn’t know the fire was coming until they looked out the upstairs window and saw it engulf a house at the end of the street. They drove away in such a rush that they backed into a ditch and flipped the car. After they somehow crawled out, the sheriff found them walking dumbfounded toward town.
The traffic piled up at the stop sign across Highway 89 from the Ranch House Restaurant, where the Granite Mountain buggies and the Blue Ridge crew were heading. Truman came to a stop, then turned right and pointed his rig toward the safety of the desert below.
Since Eric's last radio transmission, Granite Mountain had covered nearly a mile on the two-track, at some point deciding to leave the safety of the black edge. The farther the crew moved down, the thicker the smoke became. When they reached a saddle above a basin below them that was 200 yards wide, Eric lost sight of the fire. A ridge to his left would have blocked his view.
The superintendent was now faced with a choice: bail off the far side of the ridge to their right, toward the questionable safety of the desert 2,000 feet below, or keep heading down to the defensible space surrounding a ranch house, the Helms place, that he could briefly see when the smoke lifted for a moment from the saddle.
He radioed to the plane circling overhead. His transmissions, normally delivered in the deadpan of a true technician, were beginning to betray his stress. Granite Mountain, he told air attack, was moving toward the ranch house they had in sight at the foot of the basin.
Get there and everything would be OK. It didn’t look far. A 15-minute hike tops. Eric would have seen the homeowners outside, panicking as they pushed their llama and miniature donkey into the barn before they prepared to weather the inferno that was ripping toward them.
They hiked down the slope, another 500-foot descent through brush into a basin walled with giant granite boulders on three sides. Somewhere closer to the basin’s floor than the saddle, the flames appeared from behind the ridge to their left.
One at a time they came face-to-face with a fire that had just burned a seemingly impossible four miles in about 20 minutes. Each of them would have known what it meant. There was no exit. Looking down through the smoke over the tops of eight-foot chaparral to a fire that was ripping uphill at them, Eric must have realized that everything he’d worked for was gone. In one decision to leave the black, he went from the superintendent of the country’s only municipal hotshot crew to the only superintendent to have led 19 elite wildland firefighters into a burnover. If he survived, he knew every hotshot crew in the nation would be up his ass. “What were you thinking, Marsh? How did you do this?” The best he could hope for was a life sentence of crippling guilt: These kids… my kids… this situation. How did I let this happen?
Still, they kept going down. He knew that trying to outrun a fire burning uphill, the decision that killed 14 firefighters on Colorado’s South Canyon Fire, wasn’t an option. The fastest hotshots might make it; the slowest might not. The crew would stay together.
As fast as they could, they plowed through the chaparral, their forearms shielding their faces from the plants whipping back at them. The fire had spread across the head of the basin. Steed or one of the squad bosses radioed out, frantically calling the air-attack plane and helicopter overhead. Again and again they called. When the signal finally got through, no one could decipher the calls. Just screaming: “Granite 7!”
“Whoever is yelling over the radio needs to stop,” was the response from air attack. “I can’t understand you.”
The crew’s best chance at survival lay in a depression on the basin floor where two swales that flowed toward Yarnell met. The brush was thinnest there. Eric and Steed would have made the call. Start the chainsaws. Cut a hole in the brush big enough to deploy 19 fire shelters. Squad bosses Robert, Clayton, and Travis would have confirmed the order with nods. This is right. This is what we have left.
A helicopter beat the air overhead, searching for the crew through the smoke. All they saw was occasional bursts of flame running and leaping up the basin.
Finally, Eric radioed air attack, his back to the superheated wind. “Our escape route has been cut off. The Granite Mountain hotshots are deploying their fire shelters.” Their chainsaws were heard ripping in the background.
The crew would have been deliberate.
The orders provided purpose. The purpose moderated panic. They’d set down their chainsaws and gasoline outside the circle of the safety zone, so that when the fuel exploded it wouldn’t damage their shelters. They’d use flares to set the brush around them on fire, a technique Wag Dodge, a Montana firefighter, famously used to save his own life on a fire that killed 13 smoke jumpers more than 60 years earlier. It would burn the fuel out around the safety zone and keep the flames farther away from the shelters. The clearing was just 60 feet by 60 feet—a three-car garage.
They deployed their shelters in ascending order of experience. The rookies and seasonal hotshots went first; then the squad bosses, making sure their men were in. Before entering his shelter, Steed would have watched Robert, Clayton, and Travis climb into theirs. Eric went last. To protect their heads, they all pointed their feet toward the advancing flames. The grouping was so tight that the shelters touched. They followed orders. No man tried to run or buck the command. Inside the orange glow of their shelters, they would have heard each other’s encouragements over the wind. They would each have had just a few moments to think. They’d wrestle their shelters as they beat the air like wind socks. They’d clench their teeth, desperately pinning the flimsy aluminum tents to the ground as the flames passed over them and the heat became unimaginable.
Donut and the Blue Ridge hotshots parked Granite Mountain’s buggies at the Ranch House Restaurant and were watching the exodus of cars. The fire had overtaken the houses at the end of the street. Every few moments a propane tank exploded, throwing 30-foot flames skyward. The helicopter beat the air above—searching for the crew through the smoke. The fire fight had ground to a halt. Donut, who had heard Eric’s radio transmission moments before, was in a daze.
It took more than an hour and a half for Ranger 58, a helicopter from Arizona’s Department of Public Safety, to locate the fire shelters. The first in was Eric Tarr, a paramedic. He was dropped by helicopter near the Helms place and walked 500 yards up the box canyon through the charred and barely smoking landscape. Already, more firefighters, three Forest Service men on ATVs, were converging on the basin. Minutes after arriving on the scene, Tarr checked each man’s pulse and radioed out, “I have 19 confirmed fatalities.”
When the Prescott dispatch reached Wade Ward, a former Granite Mountain hotshot and the department’s current public information officer, they told him he needed to get to the dispatch center as fast as possible. They didn’t tell him why. As he sped to the station, all he could think of was that something had happened to his family.
When he arrived, the dispatchers were all standing at their computers, silently watching him make the long walk across the room to where a few senior-ranking Prescott fire personnel sat waiting.
“Granite Mountain deployed at the Yarnell Fire,” they told him. His first thought was Eric’s not going to be happy. There’s going to be reams of paperwork, an investigation, and the crew’s going to be put under more of a spotlight than it already was.
Then it began to sink in. These guys? Eric? Granite Mountain? No way. They’re too good.
When the call came in confirming the fatalities, Wade wrote in his notebook, “No medical needed; recovery.” From that point on, it was a race against Facebook and Twitter. The department called police officers, chaplains, and trauma specialists and sent them in teams of three to each of the victims’ families’ homes. They were dispatched in Montana, California, and a handful of cities in Arizona. Mostly, though, it was Prescott.
In its 128-year history, the city’s fire department had never had a fatality. Wade had no comparable experience to fall back on. From his pocket, he grabbed the PIO’s handbook for responding to tragedies and set about ticking off a checklist of tasks. Already the story was leaking.
Wade’s phone began to ring, as it would for the next three months. It was a reporter in Ireland, then a reporter in New York. Both were trying to confirm what they’d already heard. Is it true? The greatest number of firefighter deaths since 9/11? The most professional wildland firefighters ever killed in a single incident?
He told them emphatically, “It is not confirmed.” But when a reporter friend of his from the local newspaper called, one that he often worked with on what now seemed like such insignificant stories, he asked for his help.
“Please, let us tell the families first.”
It was a race they couldn’t win. Donut was sitting in the passenger seat of Granite Mountain’s parked buggy, just staring ahead. He’d called his mother and told her that he was OK, but that’s all he could say. The details escaped him.
The phones of his dead crewmates started ringing around 9 P.M. One cell phone rattled in the cup holder by the front seat, where Clayton had sat. Then it was the phones of the hotshots who’d sat in the back. The calls were from girlfriends, friends, and family members. Maybe they caught wind of the tragedy on Facebook. Maybe they’d heard it second- or thirdhand from somebody else. It didn’t matter. The word was out. The Granite Mountain hotshots had deployed. The people were calling without any real hope that their message would ever be returned. They were calling to say goodbye.
The calls and texts kept coming, endless rings and vibrations and senseless jingles. Donut had to leave the buggy.
Marty Cole, the former superintendent of Granite Mountain and one of the two safety officers on the fire, leaned against the hood of his truck for a long time before he made up his mind that he wasn’t going to the site. He’d seen enough burned bodies in his career, and could remember the faces of every one of them. “I didn’t want to remember my friends like that. Not them. Not like that,” he said.
Then he changed his mind. He needed to see for himself what had happened. He drove into Glen Ilah. The burn pattern seemed to have no logic. There were houses abutting the highway that were nothing but smoldering timber and houses in the middle of the neighborhood standing untouched next to thickets of unburned brush. Wilted fruit hung from the limbs of a charred apricot tree. Across from Truman and Lois’s place, one of the few houses that miraculously survived, Dan and Dorman’s garden was still green and producing squash. Their house was burned to the ground.
That first trip, Marty made it only to the gate of the road that led to the Helms place before he stopped, put it in reverse, and drove the six miles back to the incident command post. As he did, he replayed memories from over the years he’d worked with Eric Marsh. The hardheadedness, their arguments over trivial things like the color of crew T-shirts, his absolute faith in Eric’s ability as a firefighter.
Four times he made the trip to and from the command post before arriving at the ranch house a third of a mile from the site of the tragedy. The fire had hit so hard, it broke the house’s windows and oxidized the steel wagon wheels and iron bear statue on the property’s perimeter. But the house was left standing. It had defensible space.
Marty walked across the blackened flats toward the basin. The bushes looked like spent matches. The soil had a texture of iced-over snow—crispy on top and powdery underneath—and there was no smoke or heat. The fire had burned so hot and fast that the mammoth granite boulders on the basin’s flanks had cracked like eggshells.
What the hell were they doing here? Marty thought.
At the site, a sheriff stood guard. The hotshots’ pants and packs were incinerated. Their saws, Pulaskis, and Rhinos were now deformed lumps of metal. Fourteen of their shelters had been vaporized or ripped off by the wind, and many of the men lay in the fetal position, as if they were sleeping in the blackened ash. The remaining shelters were barely recognizable. The aluminum had flaked off; the glue that held them together had melted when the temperatures hit 1,200 degrees. Five hotshots lay beneath these remnants. Robert was one of them.
Marty stood in shock and listened. Again and again he heard a hissing that ended in a crack. What is that? he thought. Then it hit him. The hotshots’ radios. Somehow they were still on and functioning. He took a deep breath and went to turn them off, but the sheriff stopped him. “You can’t,” the officer told Marty, his hand on the old superintendant’s chest. For the next three months, state and federal investigators would have to examine every detail of the crew’s history up to their final moments. Something needed to be learned from this tragedy. “I’ve wanted to turn them off since we got here. But we have to leave it for the investigators.”
Claire Caldwell was watching Cold Mountain in her bedroom at the back of the house. She was eating Thai lettuce wraps she’d made for dinner when a friend of hers knocked on the door. She didn’t hear him. The AC was on, and the movie was turned up loud. He let himself in. When he yelled her name, she got up and went to hug him but stopped.
“It’s not good,” he said. “Have you seen the news?” She didn’t like the look on his face.
“I don’t watch fucking news.”
“My boys? Not my boys.”
She fell to her knees.
No. It’s not true. Deployed? She knew what that meant. But no, she thought. They’re fine. They have to be. They’re Granite Mountain.
Claire ran to the fridge to grab the Prescott Fire contact list. She called the most senior name she could find. Her friend drove her to Mile High middle school, where the families of the fallen had gathered in an auditorium. She learned that there was one survivor—hope. She hugged the wives of other firefighters who had already heard the news. “I’m so sorry,” Claire said as she wept. “I’m so sorry.”
She watched Granite Mountain alumni, strong men who had quit the crew only months before, weeping with such incapacitating grief that they could walk only with the help of friends. Still she didn’t know about Robert. They were newlyweds. Most people didn’t know who she was. Nobody told her.
Finally, she grabbed a uniformed officer by the shirt cuffs and asked him, “Is my husband fucking alive?”
“What’s your name, Miss?”
“Claire. Claire Caldwell.”
The Hotshots were removed from the site the following morning. They were placed in body bags and covered in American flags. Eleven Prescott-area firefighters, along with the father of one of the hotshots, ceremoniously loaded the bodies into the backs of pickups and drove them to the Helms place, the safety zone they never reached. There, a pastor gave each his blessing, then the bodies were transferred to medical transport vans and driven 78 miles to a hospital in Phoenix, where they were prepared for burial.
A few miles outside Yarnell, people started appearing to watch the procession. At first it was just a few standing silently by the side of the highway to offer their respects. Before long there were thousands. Police cars and fire trucks were parked at every stoplight and street corner in Phoenix. On a Monday afternoon, strangers with signs offering prayers stood shoulder to shoulder in 112-degree heat to honor the 19 fallen hotshots.
The firefighters’ loved ones grieved differently. Linda Caldwell, Robert’s mother and Grant McKee’s aunt, insisted she see her son’s and her nephew’s bodies before they were cremated. She was led into a room where they lay on gurneys with American flags draped over them. Grant was on the right, still in the fetal position. Robert lay prone and plank-like on the left. For half an hour she felt their hands and feet through the stars and stripes. She touched Robert’s nose and ran her hands over his bald head. Her husband, David, couldn’t bring himself to see his son’s burned body. It hurt too much. Instead, he gave Robert a gift he had meant to give him the last time he saw him alive. It was a first-bound edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. He placed it inside Robert’s coffin.
In this exclusive documentary by Dan Winters and Kyle Dickman, friends, family, and the lone survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots speak out. Also, view photos from Yarnell Hill and portraits of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Kyle Dickman is an Outside associate editor.
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