© 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 a previously 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 girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. He likes Prescott, he says, but acknowledges that it’s 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 couldn’t leave. I’m really rooted here; I love it here.”
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, we’ll 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 couldn’t support my daughter, because no one wanted to hire a felon. I couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s flipping burgers. It was a dark period in my life.”
McDonough says he’s 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. That’s 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, it’s 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?