Sunday, June 30
The Granite Mountain crew got up early and said goodbye to their families.
Tony Rose and his fiancée, Tiffany, had spent the evening watching TV in bed. Tiffany was six months pregnant – their first child, a girl, was due in October. That morning, Tony woke up, kissed his fiancée's belly, and told their baby he loved her and he would see her soon.
Wade and Alicia also spent the night at home. Alicia did Wade's laundry and teased him about how bad his Hotshots shirt stunk. He told her he'd found a house for them, for after the wedding, and that they should look at it on his next day off. They fell asleep holding hands, and the next morning Wade woke up at 5 and blew Alicia a kiss as he walked to his car.
At 5:20, Andrew Ashcraft gave Juliann a kiss on his way out the door. After he left, he texted her, just in case: i love you juliann.
At the station, the Hotshots loaded their buggies with the usual gear. Their canvas packs were filled with 50 pounds of gear: radios, temperature gauges, headlamps, flagging tape, flares, food rations, and as many quarts of water as they could carry. Their tools: chain saws, Pulaskis, pickaxes, rakes, and drip cans, in case they needed to light a backfire. And finally, their emergency shelters.
Emergency shelters are a firefighter's last resort. Essentially a high-tech blanket of woven fiberglass and aluminum foil that can reflect 95 percent of a fire's radiant heat for up to 10 minutes (imagine a Hot Pocket sleeve turned inside out), it's only to be deployed when a firefighter has no other option. When used properly, shelters can be surprisingly effective: Of the 116 shelter deployments since 2005, just two resulted in deaths. Still, they only work on fire that passes over and keeps moving – not in prolonged direct flame. At 500 degrees, the seams start to break down; the aluminum melts at 1,200. The typical wildfire burns at 1,600 degrees or more.
The buggies headed south on Highway 89 for about an hour, then pulled into an elementary school north of Yarnell where the fire's Incident Command was set up. There were generators, tent camps, showers, and lots of Gatorade.
As the rest of the crew met for weather and safety briefings, Eric went ahead, hiking up to the fireline to mark a trail for the guys to follow. He made his way through the brush, pausing every 50 yards or so to tie a strip of pink flagging tape around a branch. This wasn't sparse desert scrubland; it was thick chaparral, a four-foot tangle of mountain mahogany, thorny catclaw, manzanita, and Sonoran scrub oak. In some places it was so thick, it was almost impassable. It was also highly flammable; the locals call the oily manzanita "gasoline on a stick."
Down at Incident Command, the rest of the crew was having breakfast before setting out. A Yarnell man named Rick McKenzie approached with some advice. Rick's family had been in Yavapai County for 150 years, since his great-grandfather moved from Nova Scotia to prospect for gold on Yarnell Hill. He bow-hunted in these mountains, and he knew the terrain well. He went up to one of the Hotshots, a squad boss named Travis Carter.
"Y'all be careful up on that mountain," Rick told him. "That brush is so thick that you can't even crawl through it. And that manzanita burns hot. If the fire comes down off the mountain, man, watch out. It'll blow up."
"Thanks," Travis said, nodding. "We appreciate that."
After breakfast, the crew packed up and drove down to a subdivision called Glen Ilah, about a mile south of Yarnell. They parked at the end of a dirt road called Sesame Street. Their orders were to hike the hill above Glen Ilah and establish an anchor point on the fire's southern tip. From there, they could start cutting a line to contain the fire along its eastern flank.
They threw on their packs and started up Eric's trail. It wasn't even 9 a.m. yet, but it was already sweltering, the temperature on its way to a high of 103. The desert air was thick and heavy, and there wasn't much wind.
The crew hiked past a burro path leading to an old gold mine, and through stands of bear grass so thick it could lock up the drive shaft on a Jeep. The mountain lions and bears would have fled by now, but there were still a few mule deer and the occasional cottontail. The lizards and rattlesnakes were deep inside the rocks, trying to escape the heat.
They hiked for about an hour and a half, with Jesse in the lead. They were red and sweaty when they caught up with Eric around 9:30 near the top of the ridge. The fire wasn't particularly threatening: just a few smoldering bushes, a line so small Eric could literally step across it.
By now the fire had burned about 300 acres, but it didn't seem dangerous, just routine. They had their escape route, their predetermined safety zone. The fire was moving away from them, to the northeast, at half a mile an hour, so they started working along the eastern flank, clearing brush and digging a line so the fire wouldn't edge any closer to Yarnell. In the distance they could hear agave plants bursting from the heat, popping like gunfire. The crew's spirits were high. They were laughing, teasing each other, cracking jokes. They were doing good, hard, physical work, close to home, and getting paid overtime for it.
On a clear day, the panorama would have been impressive; you could have almost seen Phoenix, 90 miles to the south. But today the smoke and haze were too thick. A wildfire doesn't smell nice, the way a campfire does; it's acrid and harsh, like working in an ashtray.
Around noon, Jesse and Eric sent one member of the crew, 21-year-old Brendan McDonough, back down to be a lookout. His job was to keep an eye on the fire, wind, and weather conditions from below, and warn the crew if anything looked threatening. Brendan was the Hotshot who was out with a cold. He had a tattoo of a doughnut – his nickname, from "McDonough" – on his left calf.
The guys worked for a couple of hours, digging line and clearing brush. Around 2, they took a break on some boulders and ate lunch – MREs. Around them, chemical retardant had turned the rocks a deep, rusty red. It was like picnicking in a desert on Mars. One of them snapped a picture, the crew smiling. Just another day at work.
After church, Juliann Ashcraft had taken the kids to a pool near the airport, where she spotted tanker planes taking off overhead, ferrying retardant to the fire. There was a rainstorm blowing in, and she texted Andrew. "I wish I could see it," he wrote back. "I would love some rain over here."
Andrew and Juliann had been going through a rocky patch. It started in 2011, his first season on the crew. Juliann was not happy. Andrew was missing birthdays and swim lessons. She had to coach their son's soccer team, seven months pregnant. For the next two years, she begged him to quit, because the job was so hard on her. The following spring, she'd just given birth to their fourth baby, and Andrew was getting ready to leave for another seven months away. Juliann put her foot down.
This is a job for bachelors, she told him. You need to quit, or we're not going to survive another season. Andrew knew she was right, that he was being selfish. But he also loved being a Hotshot.
But then, a few months ago, Andrew seemed to change. He started spending more time with the kids. He was applying for forest ranger jobs in Florida, where the fire season was shorter and easier to manage. In May he typed up a contract that he framed and gave to her. "For My Wife Juliann," it said. "Time and All Eternity."
Below that, he wrote a list of promises. There were 19 in all:
I promise to always take care of you.
I promise to be someone you're proud of.
I promise to be the father our family deserves.
I promise my decisions will make our family strong again.
At the bottom, he signed it: "Andrew Sterling Ashcraft, Husband and Father."
In January, Andrew bought everyone in the family white rubber wristbands, similar to Livestrong bracelets. He called them their "Be better" bands, because they said be better. Every time he and Juliann looked at them, it was supposed to remind them to be better parents, better spouses. Juliann wore hers for a couple of days. Andrew said he would wear his until he died. She figured it would last maybe a week.