In Arizona, on the afternoon of June 30, 2013, a fast-moving wildfire dubbed the Yarnell Hill Fire ignited. Fueled by high winds and dry conditions, the blaze quickly grew out of control, charring more than 8,000 acres in just a few days. On July 1st - just as the fire was reaching its peak - 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed while fighting to save their community. This devastating event left behind grieving families and friends, as well as a community in shock. In remembrance of these brave firefighters, we want to share their story and highlight what made them so special.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were highly specialized and heavily trained wildland firefighters. To become a hotshot, candidates must complete an arduous selection process that includes rigorous physical tests and interviews. Once accepted onto the crew, members undergo even more training in subjects such as fire behavior, hazardous materials awareness, wilderness survival skills and first aid/CPR. In addition to their regular training schedule, the Granite Mountain Hotshots also conducted monthly live-fire exercises where they would simulate various wildfire scenarios. These exercises allowed the team to work together under realistic conditions and build crucial on-the-job experience.
On June 30th, 2013 - just hours before their tragic passing - the Granite Mountain Hotshots were deployed to the Yarnell Hill Fire. The blaze ignited on Arizona state route 89A, near Yarnell Arizona, just south of Prescott. Fueled by hot dry desert winds and fueled by chaparral brush and sage scrub vegetation, this fast-moving fire quickly grew out of control. In just a few days, it had burned more than 13 square miles (over 8000 acres) of Arizona’s rugged terrain.
The Arizona State Forestry Division (ASFD) had been monitoring the fire’s progress throughout the day. By mid-afternoon on June 30th, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency in Yavapai County - where the blaze was raging - and asked for 250 National Guard troops to be deployed. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were also dispatched to assist with fighting this massive wildfire. But shortly after they arrived, disaster struck…
At approximately 16:40 Arizona time (Mountain Standard Time), strong winds began pushing the flames from southwest to northeast; directly towards an area known as Weaver's Needle Peak Overlook where 19 members of Arizona's Granite Mountain Hotshots had taken refuge atop a ridge. Arizona Forestry Division officials quickly became concerned and ordered the crew to evacuate. However, because of their isolated location, they were unable to communicate with the firefighters; due to a lack of radio connectivity in the rugged terrain where they were fighting the blaze. Arizona State Forestry Division Director Scott Hunt later stated that he thought Granite Mountain Hotshots had left Weaver's Needle Peak Overlook about an hour before it was overtaken by flames - but unfortunately this was not true.
In reality, most of Arizona's Granite Mountain Hotshots were still inside Weaver's Needle Peak Overlook when fire engulfed them around 17:40 pm on June 30th 2013 (Mountain Standard Time). Nineteen out of twenty members did not survive this tragic event. The lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, was serving as lookout at the time of the fire. He managed to escape and warn his fellow crewmembers; though he suffered burns over 20 percent of his body.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered Arizona flags at all state buildings to half-staff in honor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. President Barack Obama also awarded posthumous Medals of Honor to each member of Arizona's Granite Mountain Hotshot team for their brave service and ultimate sacrifice. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were an incredibly skilled and dedicated team of firefighters. They selflessly risked their lives to battle Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, and tragically lost their lives in the process. We will never forget their heroism and sacrifice. Thank you, Granite Mountain Hotshots, for your service. You will forever be remembered and honored.
The brave hotshot members that had lost their lives that day:
Andrew Ashcraft, 29
Robert Caldwell, 23
Travis Carter, 31
Dustin DeFord, 24
Christopher MacKenzie, 30
Eric Marsh, 43
Grant McKee, 21
Sean Misner, 26
Scott Norris, 28
Wade Parker, 22
John Percin Jr. 24
Anthony Rose, 23
Jesse Steed, 36
Joe Thurston, 32
Travis Turbyfill, 27
William Warneke, 25
Clayton Whitted, 28
Kevin Woyjeck, 21
Garret Zuppiger, 27
Sources: Arizona Republic (2013), National Wildfire Coordinating Group website (2018), Arizona State Forestry Division website (2018), Prescott Fire Department website (2018).
Authors Bio: My name is Fred Schoeffler, and I’ve lived in Arizona since 1955. Throughout my career of 34 years, I was a Forestry Aid, then a Lead Forestry Technician, and then finally a Supervisory Forestry Technician, and spent the following 28 years (1981-2007) as the Payson Hotshot (HS) Crew Superintendent. I also worked a few months on the Oak Grove HS (1973), where we were required to learn the Fire Orders, Watch Outs, Downhill Checklist, and the Common Denominators of Fatal and Near-Fatal Fires by heart.
Our Project 10 & 18 United LLC strives to be a valuable resource for Wildland Firefighters (WFs) and Firefighters (FFs) engaged in wildland firefighting, who want to learn from both the positive and negative experiences of others. To offer future prospects the value of learning from highly experienced WFs and FFs to provide the next generation with well-learned leadership lessons and skills, wildland fire weather and fire behavior, safe practices, proper and truthful accident investigations, and other aspects of wildland fire management, inspiring younger WFs and FFs to excel in this inherently dangerous, noble, and rewarding vocation.