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.