The only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew to survive the Yarnell Hill Fire has been identified as 21-year old Brendan McDonough. Contrary to earlier reports that he had been assigned to move equipment when the other 19 members of the crew became entrapped and were killed, Mr. McDonough was serving as a lookout.
The duties of a lookout on a wildland fire are to observe the fire and the weather and to notify the crew about changes that could jeopardize their safety. Typically they find a high vantage point from which they can see both the fire and the location of the other firefighters.
In a briefing Tuesday, Prescott Fire Department Public Information Officer Wade Ward said Brendan, who is in his third season with the crew, did “exactly what he was supposed to do”. When he arrived at the lookout point he identified a trigger point for himself and decided that when the fire reached that location he would have to leave for his own safety. Later in the day when the fire reached that trigger point, he radioed the crew Superintendent, telling him that the weather was changing rapidly and the direction of spread of the fire had changed because the wind direction had changed. Brendan told him that he had to leave his lookout location and that if the crew needed anything to contact him. That was his last communication with the crew, after which he walked out and met the Blue Ridge Hot Shots. He looked back and saw that the point where he had been had already burned over. He then got in the Blue Ridge Hotshots’ vehicle and was taken to a safety zone. Brendan was not injured and did not have to deploy his fire shelter.
“The wind changed,” said Prescott Fire Battalion Chief Ralph Lucas, explaining the movement of the fire. “We had a thunderstorm that was above. They have a tendency to push winds around, just because of the dynamics of nature, and that may have been what occurred during that time period, that brought fire up toward his trigger point, indicating that it was time for him to leave his lookout point.”
Mr. Ward implored the audience to protect Brendan’s privacy and to leave him alone, which precipitated applause from the crowd. Then he said, “Give him some time. And when I mean time, it’s going to take weeks, if not longer”.