It is believed by many that the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots that died in Arizona on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 were hiking to a private ranch near the fire, which was thought to be a bomb-proof safety zone. While still hundreds of yards away, they were overrun by the rapidly spreading fire pushed by shifting outflow winds from a thunderstorm.
One of the owners of the ranch, DJ Helm, has written a book about their experiences before, during and after the fire. Below is an excerpt from the book, Fire on the Wind, published with permission.
We didn’t know it was coming, that fire on the wind, but we did know it was blazing out of control way over to the north of us along the base of the distant mountains. I had gone to our front window to check its progress just before we sat down for lunch on that unusually hot Sunday afternoon of June 30, 2013.
We weren’t overly concerned about it as we watched the aerial attacks of water and crimson retardant being dumped in that area. The fire was definitely burning away from us and looked as if it had burned itself out on the mountainous state land to the northwest of our house where it started.
I had so looked forward to our three-day Grand Canyon vacation that began Thursday, June 27, 2013. Then right in the middle of it came the phone call. It was early Friday evening, June 28th, and there was smoke on the mountain above our house. The neighbor who called said it was caused by lightning from thunderstorms booming in the skies over Yarnell and Glen Ilah.
Lightning struck on the tallest mountain’s ridge near time-sculpted boulders barely visible above thick native vegetation. Having been deprived of adequate rain for several years it was bone-dry, a volatile wildfire-prone condition. Local fire departments began receiving a flood of calls from those who saw the first smoke. Everyone within the comfortable circle was confident the problem would be taken care of as they continued to go about their daily routines for the next two days.
Judging by first impressions, an aerial report noted it was just a couple of acres of brush burning among a pile of rocks up there; not much of a threat. The rough terrain would be accessible by helicopter only and darkness was setting in; there would be no action taken at that time. It was the beginning of the Yarnell Hill Fire—and we weren’t home.
Sunday afternoon, June 30th, we were back home, and shortly after 4:00 pm the unimaginable happened. Firefighters and residents alike were caught off guard when the northbound fire was clutched by a ferocious storm brandishing strong southbound winds, suddenly turning it around, driving it in this direction. Pushing forward at a speed many firefighters had never experienced, there was no chance of stopping the powerful epic phenomenon. The wind-driven torch swathed across boulder-strewn valleys and over mountains heading toward our communities and the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots, trapping them in a flat-bottomed, three-sided box canyon.
In a flash, smoke and flames engulfed the neighborhoods, causing unprepared occupants to flee the fast-approaching wall of fire. Leaving everything behind except a few personal items grabbed in haste, desperate residents were forced to evacuate as the blaze chased them out. Driving through blinding smoke along twisting narrow streets, crawling bumper-to-bumper away from the advancing inferno, a steady stream of traffic surged onto State Route 89. With the Sheriff’s Department’s assistance and neighbors helping neighbors, everyone made it out safely. Everyone but 19 of the Hotshots.
By happenstance we were most likely the first civilians to be made aware of the 19 young men’s deaths. One of the other firefighters told me about the tragedy later after several of them hiked down here from the fatality site. I was standing by the house, staring in disbelief at the devastation surrounding us in every direction, when he walked up behind me. He wanted to know how to get back in here so they could recover the Hotshots’ bodies from the side of the mountain.
The unrestrained Yarnell Hill Fire became one of the deadliest in U.S. history, swiftly taking thousands of acres that Sunday afternoon. Desecrating the pristine high-desert countryside, it left naked, blackened boulders behind as well as 127 burned-out homes in Yarnell and Glen Ilah. Several buildings on a ranch in Peeples Valley were also burned. Amazingly, though it was harrowingly close for so many of them, no civilians were lost.
Tragically, 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots’ lives were cruelly taken. They had descended from the mountain top and perished in a box canyon one-third of a mile from our home and about a mile southeast of where the lightning had started the fire. Before long the fatality site was enclosed within a chain-link fence. Outside the fenced area to the north a flagpole was erected, which began flying American and Arizona flags.
This book is about our personal experience with the Yarnell Hill Fire and the first hectic weeks that turned into months—now years—as fire officials, police, forest service investigators, government officials, and family members—by this time well over two thousand people—have come up our driveway, through our property, and over the newly-cut bulldozer line to the site.