Friday, June 28
It was 5:36 p.m. when the lightning struck. A local rancher called it in: a little brushfire at the top of Yarnell Hill, near an old mining town in the high desert of western Arizona. The site was too rugged to reach on foot, so a helicopter crew was sent to check it out. It was less than an acre, four miles away from the nearest homes, and declared to be "not much of a threat."
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Meanwhile, 35 miles north, the Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Arizona, were looking for something to do. As one of the country's 110 Interagency Hotshot Crews, it was their job to travel all over the West to stop the biggest, most dangerous wildfires before they got out of control. Last year they battled 14 fires in six states, but so far, 2013 was off to a slow start.
This was usually a busy time for fires in Arizona, when lightning could start small spot fires that quickly blazed out of control. And with electrical storms moving into the Prescott area, the Hotshots had to stand watch, meaning another night killing time around the station house. It was an important job – but they also wanted bigger action.
Wade Parker, a 22-year-old Hotshot with a lip full of Copenhagen, was ready to call it a day. He had tickets to a Christian-rock concert in neighboring Prescott Valley, but he was stuck on call and not happy about it. He sent a text to his fiancée, Alicia Owens. "We've got to stay at this dumb-ass station," Wade said. "We can't go eat or do anything because there's lightning in the area."
At least there were snacks. The mood brightened when Juliann Ashcraft, the wife of Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft, arrived with cookies. Juliann brought cookies to the station three nights a week, and the guys took turns choosing the flavor. Tonight was Wade's turn, and he'd asked for chocolate-chip bacon.
"Mrs. Ashcraft – you made me weak in the knees!" Wade said when he took a bite. He turned to Andrew, her husband. "Dude – what are you doing right?"
Around then the crew's superintendent, Eric Marsh, got a call from the Prescott National Forest up the road. There had been a few new starts on West Spruce Mountain; the dispatcher asked the crew to hike up and take a look.
There were 19 Hotshots at the station that day. They'd started the season with 23 on the crew, but two were injured, one was out with a cold, and one quit a week earlier because he had a baby due soon.
They'd all had hundreds of hours of training and had passed a rigorous fitness test, but their résumés varied widely. During the off-season, Scott Norris worked at a gun shop. Billy Warneke served four years as a Scout Sniper in the Marines. Wade Parker had been a fry cook at In-N-Out Burger, and John Percin and Grant McKee both used to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant called El Charro. Five of the guys had worked in construction. Two had been ranch hands. Six had worked on other Hotshot crews. For two of the guys – 21-year-old Grant McKee and 26-year-old Sean Misner – this was their first season as firefighters.
Hotshots are backcountry firefighters who hike or helicopter into the kind of rugged wilderness that regular firefighters can't reach. Organized into 20-man crews, they work from May to October, patrolling the West with little more than a Pulaski, their signature multipurpose ax. They typically work for 14 or 21 days straight, digging firelines with no showers or bed until the fire is out, then get two days off before heading out to do it again. It's a physically exhausting, emotionally taxing way of life – but for a risk-loving outdoorsman of a certain bent, it's also perfect.
Each of the Granite Mountain crew was drawn to fire for different reasons. Four of them – 21-year-old Kevin Woyjeck, 24-year-old Dustin DeFord, 22-year-old Wade Parker, and 30-year-old Chris MacKenzie – were firemen's sons. Clayton Whitted, 28, was a youth minister who saw firefighting as his way of serving God. And 23-year-old Bob Caldwell just liked the action: "I'd rather die in my boots," he liked to say, "than live in a suit."
At the bottom of West Spruce Mountain, the crew climbed out of their "buggies" – the 10-passenger Ford F750s they used – and started to hike. They worked into the night, securing a perimeter around the fire while two helicopters dropped water from above. A few hours later, the fire was holding steady at three acres, so they bedded down and went to sleep in the dirt.
Around 11, Wade sent Alicia another text. "Hey, babe," he said. "We popped a little fire out by the last one. Sorry I wasn't able to let you know. I love you."
Meanwhile, back on Yarnell Hill, the other, smaller fire smoldered on. It was still only about two acres; a good Hotshot crew could have put it out pretty easily. But because it was late and dark and hard to get to, the local incident commander decided not to send anyone.