The Yarnell Hill Fire lone survivor: Interview with Brendan McDonough

© 2015 Bill Gabbert

It has been two years since Brendan McDonough lost his 19-member firefighter family. On June 30, 2013 the Yarnell Hill Fire claimed their lives when a firestorm roared through brush 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, leaving McDonough the only survivor of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

The day before, he had been sent home sick by Jesse Steed, Captain and second in command of the crew. The next day on the fire near Yarnell, Steed, as the acting Superintendent may have thought that McDonough was not quite 100 percent recovered when he assigned him to serve as a lookout for the crew staying in one spot observing the fire, taking weather observations, and updating the rest of the crew on the status of the fire and where it was in relation to their location.

As the other 19 firefighters inexplicably left the safety of an already burned area and hiked through unburned brush toward a ranch previously identified as a safe place a sudden wind shift turned the fire in their direction. Pushed by strong winds created by a passing thunderstorm, the fire burned over the crew, killing them all, even though they sought protection inside their emergency fire shelters.

McDonough, in a different location, escaped uninjured after getting a ride out of the area in a utility task vehicle (UTV) driven by a firefighter from another hotshot crew.

He now lives in Prescott, Arizona with his girlfriend, his four-year-old daughter, and the girlfriends three-year-old daughter. He likes Prescott, he says, but acknowledges that its tough for him to live there. Every sticker, every shirt, every corner is a memory,he says. But Prescott is such a loving town that I couldnt leave. Im really rooted here; I love it here.

L-R: Brendon's daughter Michaela, Brendon, Ali, and her daughter Zoe.
L-R: Brendan’s daughter Michaela, Brendon, Ali, and her daughter Zoe. Photo courtesy of Brendon McDonough.

HIRED ON WITH THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOT CREW

McDonough was not a first-round pick when he was hired on with the crew. Three guys washed out,he says, Eric Marsh told me, If you can keep up, well keep you.’”

The hotshot crew was the best thing that ever happened to me. It saved my life. I probably would have continued doing drugs, I probably would have ended up in prison or with an overdose or dead. I was a dad before I got hired. I felt like a failure because I couldnt support my daughter, because no one wanted to hire a felon. I couldnt even get a job at McDonalds flipping burgers. It was a dark period in my life.

McDonough says hes thankful for the others on the crew who taught him about being both a dad and a hotshot. They taught me all they knew, and they also taught me how to be a man, a well-rounded man. Family life. Thats what the brotherhood is really about.

That is what I lost that day,he adds. Not just a hotshot crew or nineteen fire brothers. I lost my family.

Superintendent Eric Marsh had been assigned as Division Supervisor that day, in charge of the part of the fire that included the Granite Mountain crew, temporarily supervised by Steed. When the fire shifted and moved toward McDonough, the rate of spread increased dramatically. Hey, its about time for you to get out of there,said Steed over the radio. McDonough agreed.

He said his evacuation from the area was a close call but not chaotic. Walking out, he met up with a member of the Blue Ridge Hotshots, who gave him a ride out.

Do you know why the crew left the safety of a previously burned black area and decided to walk through unburned brush toward the ranch?

I have no clue,says McDonough. I know they were asked to come to Yarnell if it was possible and Eric said, No, we are going to stay here in the black. And for some reason they left.

He says people dont understand how much face-to-face conversation Steed and Marsh engaged in that afternoon. There isnt much recorded radio traffic between them, McDonough explains, because they were working together. Why would you talk on the radio when youre two feet away from somebody? That doesnt make any sense, and some people really struggle with that.He adds that he didn’t hear a radio conversation between the two about why the crew left the black. He did hear, though, a discussion about Marsh going on ahead toward the ranch to make sure the route was good, and Marsh later told Steed they should make their way down there.

Did you hear that afternoon a warning over the radio about a thunderstorm with strong winds moving into the fire area? If you did, do you know if Jesse Steed or Eric Marsh heard it?

Yeah. Its all foggy for me; Ive heard so many versions. But I remember hearing that. McDonough says he was collecting weather observations from his lookout post when the weather warning came over the radio. Steed told him he was listening to it and asked McDonough if hed heard it. He assured Steed that he had.

Do you remember seeing the thunderstorm moving in with the strong winds, pushing the fire toward the crew?

Yeah, way off in the distance I could see it coming in. We all could see it. I feel like the winds didnt reach their full potential until close to the time they deployed their fire shelters.He adds that when he and Blue Ridge were moving the crew buggies, the winds were strong, and picked up more near the time of the deployment.

CHIEF DARRELL WILLIS

In April 2015 the Arizona Republic reported that Prescott City Attorney Jon Paladini said that Prescott Fire Department Division Chief Darrell Willis, under whom the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew worked, said that McDonough told Willis hed overheard a radio conversation between Marsh and Steed. Reportedly in that radio conversation, Marsh ordered Steed to have the crew leave the safety zone and meet him at the ranch. It was during that hike that the crew became entrapped and were killed.

McDonough says now that he and Willis talked about whether Marsh made it to the ranch or not, but I still have not gained any clarity out of that. I think what the attorney Paladini said, it wasnt from my mouth and I never talked to Paladini, so what he had to say wasnt correct. He had never talked to me face to face, and Chief Willis did another article saying thats not how it happened.

McDonough explains that the post-fire trauma, the investigations, and multiple lawsuits were a huge strain on him, and he certainly didnt blame Marsh for what had happened. It was just weighing heavy on my heart everyone was trying to blame them and I just wanted people to know that these guys were amazing men and they got caught in a really bad situation. Eric Marsh didnt kill eighteen other people himself. Thats the way I felt like people were portraying him.

Chief Willis was working on the fire helping protect structures. Did he have any interaction with the crew that day?

I dont know, really, I mean, thats not for me to answer,says McDonough. He said he didnt talk to Willis and doesnt remember him talking to others on the crew. I remember seeing him when everything started happening. When we heard guys were deploying I remember him being a leader and doing the job he needed to do. I remember I was just sitting there in shock.

THE DEPOSITION

McDonough was scheduled to provide sworn testimony during a deposition on May 28, 2015 in Phoenix, but he said it was canceled by the State of Arizona. He says everyone else was telling their side of the story, and he wanted to tell his side. And I guess the State didnt think it was important enough to hear my opinion again. I dont know why they canceled the deposition.

Do you wish they had not canceled it?

Nothing crazy or new would have come out of it,says McDonough. It would have been more of a reconfirmation of what I saw that day and trying to make sure my brothers were not going to get blamed for something they didnt do. That was the biggest thing. There have been a lot of fingers pointed I just wanted to make sure that I was standing up for my brothers. I wanted to make sure I wasnt letting people tell stories that werent true.

AFTER THE FIRE

Brendan McDonough was a Fire Explorer at the age of 14 and ten years later was in his third season with the Granite Mountain Hotshots when the unthinkable happened. In the two-plus years since that horrible day he has experienced his own personal firestorm.

For the first eight months after the tragedy he spent much of his time at funerals, memorials, investigations, fundraisers, and interviews. He took a job with the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides financial and other assistance to injured wildland firefighters or their families in the case of a line-of-duty death. The job lasted about a year.

Working with them, says McDonough, I was trying to heal as a person and help others heal, and share my stories, and kind of work with the fundraisers.

He said he helped with WFF events and visited with others who had lost someone to wildland fire, and he shared his stories. In talking with physically and mentally scarred firefighters and their families, he says, he realized that he needed to take care of himself and get some professional help. 

It showed me that I wanted to help people, but I needed to get help myself. He says hes been doing intensive therapy and taking care of himself and trying to be a good father.

In the spring of 2015 he was invited to participate in a portion of a relay that began in New York City and ended in Dallas, Texas, organized by Carry the Load. The groups vision is to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day by connecting Americans to the sacrifices of our military, law enforcement, firefighters and rescue personnel.During the 27-day event volunteers walked segments of the route. McDonough walked about half of it.

LOSING HIS 19-PERSON FAMILY

I lost nineteen amazing men that were my structure,he says. That was my life. I loved fighting wildfires. They were lost that day; I lost my boys. I lost my brothers, my mentors, my religious guidance it was tough. I knew I needed to deal with it because I started having suicidal thoughts. Thats what really pushed me to get help. It took me a while to realize that the depression was not going away and was getting worse.

He says the families of those killed in the fire are supportive and treat him like family, but he says he knows it sometimes hurts them to be around him. Im a reminder about Yarnell. I feel like just now within the last six months Ive been able to build relationships with some of the families outside of that we talk about my daughter, what they are up to, whats going on with their lives, grandkids. Its really nice to be able to have that.

THE BOOK

McDonough is not currently working at a conventional job; he is working on a book, which he says has been therapeutic for him. Hes collaborating with best-selling author Stephan Talty, author of A Captains Duty, about Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama that was captured by Somali pirates and later rescued by Navy SEALs.

McDonough, who describes himself as a knuckle dragger,” is actually writing parts of the book with Talty. As he writes, he remembers stories from his hotshot days, and he says it illuminates for him what is still painful that he can address in counseling.

He says people call it the untold story of the Yarnell Hill Fire lone survivor.But McDonough bristles at that. I would never if my brothers did make mistakes, I would never keep that a secret to put in a book. Theres nothing that is going to be in there that people dont already know.

The book, he says, is about his life his background, drug problems, burglary conviction, and becoming a father at age 19. Thats what Im saying in the book,he adds. Im sharing the stories and the great memories I have of them, and Im telling my stories about Yarnell what I saw, how I felt, and what I think happened.

He says the book also addresses his counseling. I really want to share some of my darker moments, and help people know that its okay to get help. You cant always be strong and tough if you cant even help yourself.

Some people thought that I sold outby doing the book and that I was going to write about something that I didnt tell the investigators about, but thats not the truth. Thats not who I am. I wouldnt sell out my brothers that saved my life in order to do a book. I wanted to talk to you because I feel the community thinks I sold out. I wanted to clear things up with the wildland firefighting community.

Ill still be renting a house after this book comes out. Im still going to be making truck payments, Im still going to be struggling to pay for my medical insurance. Im not going to be riding around in a Maserati from a book.

He says the publisher promised a bonus if the book sells a lot of copies, and McDonough says he’ll donate some of that to a non-profit organization. “But I am going to take care of my family, I’m going to make sure I have food on the table. A lot of people think I should donate all the money back from the book; I don’t have the funds to do that. I’m like anyone else. I just have the title of Yarnell Hill Lone Survivor.

I definitely feel like I have a lot to pay forward,McDonough says. Ive always wanted to be in a job of service to others. And mentally, I cant go back to fighting fires.

My daughter comes up to me, saying, ‘Hey Daddy. No more firefighting. She knows. At four years old she knows that there are kids out there that dont have a dad.

© 2015 Bill Gabbert

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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13 thoughts on “The Yarnell Hill Fire lone survivor: Interview with Brendan McDonough”

  1. I feel like the arguments about exactly who did what, and when, have run their course. The people that are obsessed with it have made up their minds and no additional arguing is going to change what they think. Little good can come from more of the same.

    The important facts that lead to lessons learned are known. What we don’t know are exactly who made certain decisions and their rationale. Certainly one or more people who were on the fire know, but until they come forward we may never have every answer. And while it may feel good to be able to point a finger at one or more individuals, it can only tarnish the respect we should have and the legacy of those 19 firefighters and the survivor.

    The arguments over the minutia have moved far beyond ferreting out the lessons to be learned and have transmogrified into fighting about publicly satisfying the selfish, morbid curiosity some have about every detail that happened that day.

    You may be able to find another website where this is encouraged, but it’s not the vision I have for Wildfire Today.

    So, I am going to exercise my “arbitrary and capricious” ability to call for a strategic pause. I’m closing this article to comments for a few days. After the dust settles and it opens again, hopefully it will be in a more productive, meaningful, and positive atmosphere.

    1. The interview with Brendan McDonough is being opened again for comments after the strategic pause and a cleaning up of the thread. We hope that any additional comments, as we said before, “will be in a more productive, meaningful, and positive atmosphere”.

      1. THANKS Bill, and best of luck this time. 😉

        What did Brendan think of the published interview? Have you talked with him since you ran it?

  2. Thanks. Do you think there might be an opportunity for you to follow up with Brendan if you feel some good questions were raised? What, if anything, does Brendan think are the most important lessons learned?

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