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.
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.
The Hotshots spent Saturday morning on West Spruce Mountain mopping up: chipping brush, clearing dead trees and logs and other postfire cleanup. When they finished, Kevin Woyjeck drove home to get his rod and reel.
Growing up in Seal Beach, California, a coastal suburb near the Los Angeles county line, Kevin fished every chance he got. Before he got his driver's license, he'd take the bus an hour down the Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach, speargun and rod in hand, to dive and fish. When he moved to South Dakota last summer to work on another wildland fire crew, he befriended a local firefighter who took him out on a lake to fish for trout. The guy couldn't understand how a surfer kid from Orange County knew about trout. "I just love to catch fish, dude," Kevin told him.
The only thing Kevin loved more than fishing was fighting fires. It was all he ever wanted to do. His father, Joe Woyjeck, ran an engine crew in the L.A. County Fire Department, a captain with 33 years on the job. His grandfather was a smoke jumper in the 1950s, and three of his uncles were firefighters as well. The Woyjecks lived on a two-block street with just 10 houses, and three of them belonged to firefighters.
Kevin's first trip to his dad's station came when he was a week old, and he basically never left. He got his CPR certification when he was 12, his EMT license three years later. After graduation, Kevin enrolled in a fire academy and later spent a year on an ambulance crew. Kevin's goal now was to join the L.A. fire department, but he lacked experience. The plan was to spend the summer with the Hotshots, beef up his résumé, then move back to L.A. and get a job alongside his dad.
In some ways, he was still a kid. He called his parents every day, even if he was on a fire and had to borrow someone's phone. At the weekly crew barbecues, he would gravitate toward the Hotshots' kids, playing chase or splashing around in the pool. And the first night he moved into his new apartment, an old building in Prescott, his little brother was in town. So Kevin, scared that his new building might be haunted, bought a case of beer for them to split so his brother wouldn't be able to drive. He didn't want to spend the night alone.
Still, aside from the occasional twinge of loneliness, Kevin was having a blast. On his nights off, he'd go two-stepping at a honky-tonk called Matt's Saloon. Every once in a while the crew let him run a saw, which for a rookie was a pretty big deal. He'd befriended another first-timer on the crew, 21-year-old Grant McKee, and moved into a spare bedroom in Grant's house. He wouldn't be staying long, and it showed: All he had were a few fishing rods, a duffel bag full of clothes, his interview suit, and a big tub of whey protein. (He was 5-foot-9 and weighed just 135, and he was trying to bulk up.)
That Saturday night, Kevin threw his rod and tackle in the back of his Jeep, put his favorite Eric Church CD on the stereo, and started out for the lake to fish and camp out. But pretty soon, he got a call that they were needed on another fire in the morning. He turned his truck around and headed back.
The Granite Mountain station house is a little corrugated-tin building next to a plumber and a propane shop. It isn't much to look at: a small briefing room filled with dry-erase boards and fire-safety posters ("Your life is more important than any structure!"), a dingy gym with some benches and free weights, and a toolroom filled with Igloo coolers and dirty wrenches. Still, it was an improvement over their last headquarters, a building with no heat or air-conditioning literally next to the city dump. They called it the Barn: When it snowed, the roof would leak, and when it was hot, the squirrels would come in through the windows and steal their sandwiches. The crew moved to a new station in 2010, and the city gave them $15,000 to fix it up. They squeezed every last penny of that money: Captain Jesse Steed's brother did the floors. There wasn't room in the budget for furniture, so they grabbed chairs from the dump or from the side of the road.
On a typical workday, the guys would come in to the station around 8 and get their chores done (Kevin Woyjeck had bathroom duty; Wade Parker took care of the gym), sit for a quick weather briefing in the ready room, and then go out to train for a couple of hours – a hike up Granite Mountain, perhaps, or a one-mile sprint up the steep summit of Thumb Butte while carrying another Hotshot piggyback. Jesse Steed liked to bring along a deck of cards, and whichever one he drew would be the number of push-ups the crew had to do. Usually, they would just end up doing all 380.
Granite Mountain was part of the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Division. Although wildfires were a bigger threat to the city than structural fires, the Hotshots often felt like second-class citizens. The crew had to buy their own $400 boots, and many of their chain saws were rebuilt from spare parts. (Andrew Ashcraft called his the Frankensaw.) They didn't actually cost the city much money – most of their operating costs were covered by grants, and the city would get reimbursed $39 an hour when they were deployed on federal and state lands. Still, the Hotshots were constantly on the city's chopping block. Eric had to fight for an extra dollar an hour to make the crew's salaries competitive; most of the seasonal guys were making only between $12 and $15 an hour. Over the past year or so, eight full-time positions, which had benefits, shrank to six, and Eric would lie in bed at night trying to figure out how to get those two guys the benefits he thought they deserved.
This spring, in an attempt to get the city to better understand the value of the crew, Eric wrote a manifesto called "Who Are the Granite Mountain Hotshots?" They were the guys who would meet at 3 a.m. to clear the city's streets when it snowed, he said, or take care of Fourth of July fireworks, or show up when somebody needed a chain saw: "When on a fire, we average 16 hours a day on shift, every day, for two weeks. We may hike with all of our gear for one to two hours before we get to our piece of fireline where we will start work. We don't have bathrooms or showers and we eat a lot of bad food. We love it. Off the job, we are husbands, fathers, and boyfriends. We are cowboys, hot rodders, rock climbers, hunters, marathoners, and bicycle racers. Due to our work, we have to fit a year's worth of normal life into a six-month period during our winters. It really makes us appreciate the time with our families."
If someone asked you to design a Hotshot in a lab, Jesse Steed is who you would come up with. Six-foot-four, 220 pounds, he'd spent four years as a Marine Corps gunner before becoming a Hotshot in the spring of 2001. He often said Hotshotting was the next-best thing to the military: the hard work, the camaraderie, the action. And like he did in the Marines, he got to run point.
Jesse was the captain of Granite Mountain, Eric's number two, and to the rest of the crew, he seemed invincible – superhuman, even. One time, at a fire in Yosemite, he'd rappelled down from a helicopter into the backcountry to extinguish some spot fires, when he discovered that the red dots on the thermal imaging weren't fires but black bears. Jesse chased them off with his chain saw. Another time, he was fighting a fire when a tree started to fall his way. Instead of running, Jesse dropped his shoulder into the trunk and shoved the tree back with one hand.
The other guys all worshipped Jesse. Andrew called him a Greek god; Wade said he was his hero. They would have walked through fire for him, even if walking through fire wasn't something they did for fun. Jesse was constantly wrapping everyone in bear hugs and telling his teammates he loved them. He was the kind of guy you just wanted to make proud. When he joined the crew during their second year as Hotshots, having transferred over from another crew, Eric called him "the missing piece to our puzzle."
Around 7 p.m. Saturday, Jesse pulled his Dodge pickup into his driveway in Prescott Valley. He and his wife, Desiree, had two kids: a son, Caden, 4, and a daughter, Cambria, 3. His mother-in-law was visiting, and the three of them sat on the back porch, on their brand-new patio set, watching the kids play on the swings. Caden had just learned to swing by himself, and Jesse cheered him from the patio proudly, sipping a Coors Light as the sun set.
A little after 8, Jesse's phone rang. It was Eric: He said they'd been called to a fire near Yarnell. They needed to be at the station by 5 the next morning.
Desiree didn't worry much about Jesse when he was on a fire. He'd been doing it so long without even a close call – why start now? Sometimes they talked about how fires had gotten worse in the past decade or about how more development in fire-prone areas had made the job more dangerous. Secretly Desiree kind of liked it when a fire would break out near town. It was easy to forget about the Hotshots when they were off somewhere in the middle of the woods. Having them close reminded everyone of the job they did.
Jesse got off the phone with Eric and called his squad bosses, who contacted the rest of the crew. By now it was getting dark, so he and Desiree took the kids inside. Jesse had to wake up at 4 am, so they put the kids to bed and kissed them goodnight and tried to get some sleep.
About an hour later, Darrell Willis also got a phone call. Willis was Prescott Fire's Wildland Chief – Eric's immediate boss, mentor, and close friend. On the phone was one of Willis' colleagues, who was serving as the incident commander down in Yarnell Hill. "Hey Darrell," he said. "Would you please come down here? I really need some help."
Normally, when the sun goes down and the temperature drops, a wildfire tends to cool off a bit – they call it "laying down." But the Yarnell fire wasn't laying down; in fact, it was getting bigger. By the time Chief Willis got there, around midnight, it had grown to more than 100 acres. And it was only about a mile and a half from town.
Chief Willis spent a few hours working up a structure-protection plan. The fire was moving north, toward a neighborhood called Peeples Valley; he didn't think it would reach town overnight, but Sunday morning was another story. At 3 am, he talked to the incident commander and said they needed to order a lot more resources: engines, aircraft, a number of crews. "We need to hit it as hard as we can," he thought. "Tomorrow, we're going to be in a battle."
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.
From his lookout spot below the rest of the crew, Brendan could see the fire start to shift. He had never seen one get so big so fast. Soon it had passed his trigger point, the ever-changing point on the horizon that meant he needed to move. It was about 3 p.m.
Up on the ridge, Jesse got on the radio. "Hey, Doughnut," he said. "We got eyes on it. If you need to get out of there, go ahead."
"OK," Brendan said. "If you need anything, give me call."
"All right," Jesse said. "We'll see you soon." Brendan got up off his rock and hurried toward his safety zone. By the time he looked back, the spot where he'd been standing was overtaken by flame. A little later, he caught a ride to safety with another Hotshot crew.
At 3:26, the National Weather Service in Flagstaff called the fire behavior analyst on the ground in Yarnell and told him there was a thunderstorm blowing in from the northeast. Winds were gusting 40 to 50 miles per hour. To the untrained eye, a storm might have looked like relief – dark clouds rolling in with rain to dampen the fire; in fact, it was the opposite. A seasoned firefighter like Eric knew what to expect: The winds would fan the fire like bellows on a furnace. And instead of blowing the fire away from the Hotshots, it would soon be sending the flames right toward them. At the same time, all firefighting aircraft in the vicinity were grounded, for safety. Seven minutes later, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for Yarnell.
From up on the ridge, the Hotshots would have seen a line of cars streaming onto the highway, away from Yarnell. The fire had reversed course and was closing in. Eric radioed Incident Command: "We're in a bad spot. We gotta move."
The team started moving south along the dirt trail, away from the oncoming fire. Down the hill, about half a mile away, they spotted a small llama ranch, its perimeter cleared of brush – a decent safety zone. To get there, though, they would have to drop down into a small, U-shaped canyon, effectively losing any view of the fire, then fight their way through a few hundred yards of thick chaparral – the same dry kindling that Eric had clawed his way through earlier.
The fire had by now quadrupled in speed. It was racing toward them at 15 miles per hour – roughly 1,300 feet per minute. They had a decision to make. They could keep moving south along the trail and drop over the ridgeline on the other side. They could stay put, in the black, and hope that either the fire would die down or a helicopter might come to pick them up. Or they could make a run for the ranch.
They didn't have time to think about it long. Maybe they didn't think about it at all. At 4:30, Eric radioed that they were moving toward Yarnell in the black. And then they dropped into the canyon – which was green.
Now the Hotshots were running blind. They no longer had eyes on the fire. They busted their way through the heavy brush, hacking through the prickly pear cactus, the boulders underfoot. They stumbled that way for a few frantic minutes. And then the fire hooked around the ridge and into the canyon and cut off their path to the ranch.
A wall of flames 40 feet high was sweeping its way up the canyon, 400 yards away. At that point, they would have had about a minute. Since they couldn't get to the safety zone, they had to make one of their own. Andrew Ashcraft and Travis Turbyfill, the two sawyers, started attacking the brush with their chain saws, while the rest of the guys swung their Pulaskis, frantically doing what they were trained to do: move dirt, and move dirt faster.
At the same time, someone was hurrying to light a backfire. If they could set the ground in front of them on fire, the main fire would suck those flames toward it, scorching the ground along the way. That ground would then be relatively safe. They dumped fuel from their drip cans around the zone they'd created, then set the chain saws at the outer perimeter, so that when they exploded no one would get hurt.
They were about to light the backfire when one of the Hotshots got on the radio, using the call sign Granite Mountain 7. He was out of breath, and he sounded panicked. He was trying to call Air Attack, the helicopter crew circling overhead, but they couldn't make him out.
"Whoever is yelling on the radio needs to stop!" the Incident Commander said. At which point Eric got on the radio. The Hotshots' escape route had been cut off, he said, and they were deploying their emergency shelters.
Eric's voice was calm – some said the calmest they'd ever heard him. At 4:47, he radioed his last transmission: "Deploying." And then, just like they'd practiced, the Granite Mountain Hotshots climbed into their shelters.
The smoke was too thick for any rescue helicopters to get through. Incident Command tried to raise the Hotshots on the radio: "Are you there, Granite Mountain? Are you there, Granite Mountain?" There was no answer. At 5:30, a Department of Public Safety helicopter was able to take off, but the smoke was too thick for them to see anything, and they weren't even sure where to look – no one knew the Hotshots had dropped into the bowl.
Finally, at 6:30 – an agonizing 103 minutes later – the helicopter was able to get on the ground. The onboard medic hurried to the site where they'd seen the shelters. As he approached, he spotted the metal blade from a chain saw and a pickax with the handle burned away. The ranch house was unscathed. Everything else was a smoldering moonscape.
As he got close to the site, the medic heard human voices coming from the shelters. For a moment, his heart leaped – maybe there were some survivors. He yelled out to them through the smoke. But as he got closer, the medic realized the voices were only coming from their radios.
Experts estimate that the fire burned between 3,000 and 5,000 degrees. In the end, there wasn't much left. But what there was told a story.
The 19 Hotshots were all together. No one panicked, no one ran. Travis Turbyfill and Andrew Ashcraft, the sawyers, were at the edge of the group, closest to the flames. They were cutting lines up until the end.
When Juliann got Andrew's effects back, his boots and clothes were gone. His metal belt buckle didn't make it. His pocketknife. The journals that he kept. There was a piece of Velcro from his watchband but not the watch itself. Even the metal plate and eight screws in his leg, from when he shattered it in a rappelling accident a few years back, had disappeared.
Two things, she discovered, had somehow survived the fire. One was Andrew's wedding ring, titanium. The other, shrunken and black, was the rubber wristband that said: be better.
Contributing editor Josh Eells wrote about the America's Cup in the September issue.