Saturday, June 29
At 43, Eric Marsh had been fighting wildfires for more than 20 years. He loved leading the crew – hiking into tough terrain with 50 pounds on his back, keeping pace with guys half his age. He wanted to keep doing it as long as his body would let him, but as he liked to say, he was no spring chicken. Two months earlier, he'd broken his collarbone in a mountain-biking accident and had to sit out for six weeks. He was being groomed for a supervisor's job, meaning he'd probably have to leave the field at the end of this year. In the meantime, he would make the most of what could be his last season.
Eric had joined the crew a decade ago, before they'd even qualified as Hotshots, back when they were just Prescott Fire Department Crew 7, tasked with fuels mitigation, a fancy name for clearing brush. After the Indian Fire of 2002, a 1,400-acre blaze that burned right up to the Prescott city limits, the city decided it wanted its own elite crew. Eric – who had spent 10 years as a Hotshot on other crews and was running a firefighting academy out of his living room – jumped at the chance to build his own Hotshot team.
The first time he tried teaching a crew to dig a fireline, they were so green he wondered if they were ever going to make it. For five years, they'd studied, trained, tested, and hoped. When they finally got the call from the Forest Service in 2008 saying they had officially qualified, Eric was overjoyed. The crew was deployed in California's Klamath National Forest, and they celebrated by climbing up a mountain and fighting more fire.
As the only Hotshot crew in the country attached to a municipal fire department and not the federal government, Granite Mountain was an oddity. They were just as qualified as the federal crews, but they felt as if they constantly needed to prove themselves. To Eric, it was just another reason to be better. He rode his crew hard and expected the best from them always. In return, he was 100 percent devoted to them. He and his wife, Amanda, would say they didn't need any kids, because Eric had 19 of them. He called them "my boys." They called him "Papa."
Many of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were from the Prescott area, and they had the close familial ties you'd expect from a small town. Clayton Whitted, one of the crew's squad bosses, went to the prom with the sister of Bob Caldwell, the other squad boss. Bob Caldwell was Grant McKee's first cousin. Grant was engaged to the little sister of Andrew Ashcraft's sister-in-law. And Andrew and Garret Zuppiger both worked in construction for Juliann's brother.
Even by Hotshot standards, the crew was tight. The majority of them had been working together for years. On the day they got hired, Eric would tell them, "You're no longer an individual. Whatever you do now affects 20 other guys." He instilled strong morals and a fierce sense of right and wrong, and it trickled down. Granite Mountain weren't just good firefighters; they were good men. (Eric could be funny. The crew kept a list of Eric-isms, like "It's hotter than two rabbits screwing in a wool sock.")
Eric's wife, Amanda Marsh, liked to say that her husband was 90 percent Hotshot and 10 percent hers. For her, that was enough. A drawling southern gentleman with a wickedly dry sense of humor, he'd charmed her from the minute he met her, at the Prescott Valley Denny's. They got married three years later and moved to a four-acre spread on the edge of town, with two dogs, four horses, and a garage full of mountain bikes. Eric had a little workshop in the extra bedroom where he was learning leatherwork in his spare time; he was halfway finished making Amanda a saddle. On the wall were maps marked with all the places they wanted to see: Vancouver, India, Nepal, Thailand. They'd both gotten passports, but so far, they were empty.
On Saturday morning, the Yarnell Hill fire was still burning on only two acres. An inmate crew from the Lewis State Prison was clearing brush on the ridgetop, trying to create a perimeter around the fire. By midafternoon, the fire had grown, but only to six acres. It seemed under control.
Still, things could go bad at any moment. Arizona is a perfect incubator for fire, especially the land around Yarnell – hot, dry, brush-filled country, made drier by a 10-year drought. The undeveloped hills above Yarnell hadn't experienced a burn in more than 40 years. On June 16, the National Interagency Fire Center issued an advisory that included the area: "Firefighters should acknowledge that fire growth and fire behavior ... may exceed anything they have experienced before."
Contrary to popular perception, it rains fairly frequently in Arizona – especially in the summer, after monsoon season starts, usually around the Fourth of July. But the weeks leading up to it, when thunderstorms are common, are the most dangerous time. The air is typically so hot and dry – with humidity in the single digits – that the rain evaporates before it hits the ground, a phenomenon known as virga, or "dry rain." Nevertheless, when a thunderstorm forms in those conditions, the falling raindrops can drag cold, heavy air down from the clouds, pushing the lighter, hotter air away with force. The result is called a downdraft, or an outflow – strong, erratic winds that feed a fire like blowing on kindling. In late June of 1990, during the Dude Fire in Arizona's Tonto National Forest, a cool thunderstorm formed over the heat of a fire, and the resulting outflows trapped a state crew in a burnover. Six firefighters died.
Yarnell, a rugged, unincorporated town of 650, was at a combustible crossroads, between the Weaver Mountains and the hot, flat Sonoran desert. A welcome sign at the edge of town unwittingly advertised this position: yarnell: where the desert breeze meets the mountain air.