The Atlantic, on wildfire research and the Yarnell Hill Fire


The Atlantic has produced two very good pieces on wildland fire.

One is the video below, about research into the science of combustion and how fires spread. It was filmed at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory and has excellent production values and photography. Some of the researchers featured will be familiar to those who follow the topic; they include Mark Finney, Jack Cohen, and Sarah McAllister.

The other is a long-form article about the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30, 2013. There have been several similar articles, but this one, written by Brian Mockenhaupt, is better researched and written than some. In addition to describing the fire, and the fire fight, It includes information about what went on behind the scenes at various dispatch and coordination levels, as well as the personal lives of the firefighters.

Here is a brief excerpt:

“To our families and friends, we’re crazy,” [Crew Superintendent] Eric Marsh wrote in the spring of 2013, in a sort of Granite Mountain manifesto addressed to the town of Prescott. “Why do we want to be away from home so much, work such long hours, risk our lives, and sleep on the ground 100 nights a year? Simply, it’s the most fulfilling thing any of us have ever done.”


Marsh took the lead in hiring new recruits, and focused as much on character as on stamina. “When was the last time you lied?” he asked in every interview. “Tell me about that.” Truth telling was a guiding principle for Marsh. He had quit drinking more than a decade earlier, and being honest with himself and others had become a big part of his sobriety.


Like many others who fought the Yarnell Hill Fire and who knew the hotshots who died, [Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief] Darrell Willis has spent a lot of time asking himself why they did what they did. Part of the answer he’s come up with involves the very natural urge to fight and protect our own. “They wanted to reengage,” he said, standing by the posters. “Sure, they could sit up there in the black. But if they could try to get back in the game, they were going to. What they had been doing was lost. And that happens a lot. You put a day’s worth of work into something, and all of the sudden it’s gone, and you have to have a new starting point somewhere. There’s a lot of sweat and expended energy. So what do we do, just sit up here and watch it go by? They knew there was an evacuation going on, they knew there were people staying in their houses. So what would the public think? ‘You’re not going to help us? Why did you even show up?’ ”


Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “The Atlantic, on wildfire research and the Yarnell Hill Fire”

  1. we like the video post. We had not seen that, Bill. Thank you for posting this.

  2. we hiked with photographer Brian Frank and amazing person Brian Mockenhaupt— he is the first person to look to speak to us by asking folks in Congress where is Joy— where is the hikers and he just posted his article—good to see you sharing it, Bill Gabbert.
    thank you to both Brians—we learned a lot from you two.
    To correct the article and keep it factual on our accounts—
    we never saw the men work and it took the smokejumpers and firefighters on one of our hikes to show us work was done and it took my photos to show it was the GMHS not the Saturday crew but we sat for a few hours not to watch them work but because it was 106-107 and Joy here took her snake boots off and her lymphatic was off and legs/feet/ankles were swollen so that is how we ended up in different spots equaling that time frame. We hiked to the very gps coordinates where the men died, disputed directions then Tex followed Joy scaling boulders from where the men died area back towards the Helms then skirted the North side of that hill heading to the old grader road. That is facts versus a general comment. It was not 8:30 nor high on the hill—we saw Eric marsh at 8:08/9am and he was just at the first curve going from the base of the old grader road to the 2 track ridge area road that would lead to the fire. Brian said I took photos after I passed of the men and that is not facts—I took quite a few head on shots but those are the ones that became amiss but that is facts and God knows I did take them. Yet I did take photos after too.
    Mr. Gabbert, on Sun, Apr 13, 2014 at 4:25 PM Yvonne Rolzhausen sent us an email to check on the facts so to see the PRINT come out with errors was a shock but it did not affect me like Shaun McKinnon I guess because so many locals and the Yarnell librarian adored both Brians—see the email she asked us ?s and our replies I will place in ((( )))—okay then you can see for yourself how things were pieced together—here you are Bob:
    Dear Tex and Joy,

    I am fact-checking Brian Mockenhaupt’s story on the Yarnell Hill fire for The Atlantic. Brian sends his best. You are mentioned and quoted in the article so I wanted to go over a few details to make sure our information is accurate before we go to press. I hope you won’t mind having a look at the following? My deadline is fast-approaching so if you could get in touch as soon as possible, I would greatly appreciate it. Here they are:

    (((Joy A. Collura’s husband John Collura called Joy at 1:30pm today. We pulled over here near the Grand Canyon to answer you.)))

    1) We identify you as Yarnell residents and are spelling your names: Sonny “Tex” Gilligan and Joy Collura. OK?

    (((no. Joy A. Collura is a long time resident of Congress, Arizona and Tex “Sonny” Gilligan is the one who belongs to the town of Yarnell, Arizona.)))

    2) On June 30th, 2013, did you hike up into the hills long before dawn to see the fire up close?((( accurate. we left Oak Park #15 cabin and began the hike from the property in front of McNary’s place near the Helm’s home; around the curve at 3:42a.m on 6-30-13. We had also hiked the day before but did not reach the fire line due to late start hence why we began so early on Sunday to get a better start since the temps on Joy’s temp reader reached 93-107 degrees that day and 43mph on her kestrel. )))

    3) Brian writes that Tex spends much of his time exploring the Arizona backcountry(((no, not until our union dating back to 8-23-11. Tex is a mountain man; desert/forest who pioneers it not so much explores it—he lives it. Joy is the cookie cutter lady who would hike mainly solo or at times included a hiking pal but Joy has the Arizona label “the desert walker” and is well known as such. She would hike with her 2 brain tumors and other health condition all day then go home and journal it on her hiking page www.* and when she met Tex she weighed almost 300# so he showed her how to live off the land and change her way of trekking the desert/forests. )))

    and that the two of you have been hiking for the past few years. (((since 8-23-2011. It has been an amazing life changing moment for us both with Joy’s health and Tex’s health—it makes for the most unique journey- you will never see more unlikely pair. )))


    4) Is it true that that morning you skirted the base of Yarnell Hill and climbed up the north side of a U-shaped bowl behind the Boulder Springs Ranch, the site the hotshots had been told was a “bomb-proof” safety zone?(((no. That morning where the men died is the exact gps coordinates that we argued because Tex wanted to go up that route when it was still breaking day and Joy refused to fight the tight manzinita; dense/maze-like and told him later they would and she would show him why it was not a good choice—then from that point where they died we skirted the north ridge of the U-bowl behind the Boulder Springs but we never knew that it was a bomb proof area or we never had met any of the GMHS until we reached the old grader road and met Eric Marsh for the first time.)))

    5) At around 8:30 a.m.,(((Joy replying here: it was 8:08am and my mother stated I was on the phone with her so I had checked with records so it was before 8:30am. that we met Eric Marsh yet we just felt he was a part of the firefighter community—we did not know who he was or what he was until Joanna Dodder of the Daily Courier stated “did you know you probably have the last photos of the Granite Mountain Hotshots?” and even at that point my main concern was strongly to the loss of the community and it had not even sunk in for us that 19 men died until Joanna told us while she visited us in the evacuation shelter Red Cross at Yav College in Prescott, Arizona.. ))))

    high on the hill, did you see a firefighter in green pants, a long-sleeved yellow shirt, and a red hardhat picking his way up through the tangled brush toward the fire? (((no he did not have to pick his way up the old grader road. However, nobody knows even us the eye-witness accounts know if Eric Marsh scouted and picked through the wash area vs. the old grader so from our account it began at the base of the hill on the old grader road which required no picking on that specific path but it did on other areas that day.)))))
    Did you realize a few days later that this was Eric Marsh, the Granite Mountain crew captain, scouting a route and refining a plan of attack?(((no, he was so polite and cordial and relaxed and confident and just a natural for that trekking of that terrain—for us, he was like the everready bunny; all over and not spent like the other men we passed that morning after we left Eric Marsh at the fire line. )))

    6) Did Marsh as you “What’s the best way up?” and Tex told him, “Just use the old jeep trail,” and pointed to a narrow path that ran along the hill?(((Eric Marsh was listening to Joy ramble about hiking that area for about the past 10 years and he replied looking at Joy asking that question and Tex replied. So you are correct to leave it like such but just shared the full account so you know. )))

    7) Did you both continue around the hill toward the fire running into Marsh again an hour later when he said, “You guys are going to have to get out of here soon”?(((On the last account, Eric Marsh was on top of the hill with another man in the black beyond the fire line heading towards the helispot. He quickly came down and stated “which way were you 2 heading out?” and joy said “I figured we got this far up I wanted to assess the fire from the Congress side now that I saw the Yarnell/Peeples Valley side and he stated “You guys have to leave soon because we are preparing to do fire retardant drops and the air support cannot drop with civilians in the area because we are not properly geared with clothing and helmet.” Joy gave a look like she wanted to see the Congress side and she said “I guess its better you tell us to go then someone else” so we left that area. Eric Marsh agreed and verbally stated “Yes, better me than the authorities” We smiled and left. )))

    8) Did you run into his crew as you descended –a line of sweat-soaked firefighters trudging up the hill carrying saws, hand tools, and heavy packs?(((yes. later identified as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The sweat-soaked men; the last one Joy stated to Tex “he looked sick and Tex replied to Joy that these men had the look that they were on their death march and Joy was floored and quickly removed her sd card and slipped another one thinking someone might reply to his comment being Tex has 13% hearing so he can be loud at times. Your statement is correct. )))

    9) Was the temperature already above 90 and many of the men looked exhausted?(((yes. The temps. that morning were in the 90′s but I can tell you we saw them at 9:18 and on my call an hour later it was 93 degrees. Later in the afternoon it was 107. )))

    10) Did Joy take a picture of them after they’d passed and the two of you then sat along the jeep trail for the next three hours and watched them work? (((Joy took photos of them on Tex’s request as we passed them and after we passed them. There is photos out there with the men front on. During that last passing at 9:18am Joy went to use the restroom then we sat up on the 2 track ridge road at a few different spots which you can see at these links the exact location and coordinates; (plus you will see excellent photos of your Brian Mockenhaupt) and

    That’s it. Thanks so much for your time with the above. I look forward to hearing from you.(((the links we provided above is also another confirmation way for you to look back to—it says it all and who we all walked with over time and thank you dearly for doing this part because AZCENTRAL Shaun McKinnon did not and he had us starting out from Congress and other inaccuracies and this important only the facts are given- I can see editing or cropping but no narratives are accepted.))))
    When we see articles or books or videos/movies using our accounts and we see it differ then that day we will always correct it to keep it simply as it happened versus a general or narrative way.

    We re soon to meet with some more firefighter community and author—but at no time will you see us write a book on this tragedy but anyone seeking us out—

    we are online from time to time due to travelling and trekking-

    “Happy Trails” and hi to you Mr. Gabbert.


Comments are closed.