Yarnell Hill Fire widow on 50-state thank you tour

Below is an excerpt from an article at Kare11, a tv station in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The website also has a video featuring the Ashcraft family:

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“HASTINGS, Minn — The widow of a fallen Arizona hotshot firefighter stopped in Minnesota with her four children as part of a nationwide tour to say thank you to the thousands of people who donated to her family in a time of need.

Juliann Ashcraft, 30, of Queen Creek, Arizona, embarked on the “Be Better” journey last spring in honor of her husband’s legacy and to personally thank the strangers who donated and kept her family afloat after the tragedy.

Andrew Ashcraft, 29, was among the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters who died in Yarnell Hill wildfire two years ago. His silicone wristband, inscribed with the words “Be Better” was recovered in the ashes. Charred and intact, it was one of the few things recovered on Yarnell Hill.

“It liquefied his watch and we didn’t get to see him,” said Ashcraft. “To me, it was a small miracle and tender mercy that the band survived the fire, and it started this desire in me to go ahead and spread that message to be better.”

And that’s when Andrew Ashcraft’s favorite phrase took a stronghold. The “Be Better”, not bitter, motto is now carried for miles as the family’s tour bus, a renovated 1938 Greyhound, stops in all 50 states. Every stop during the nine month journey brings a personal thank you, like the recent visit to the Minneapolis’ Homes for Heroes program,a Minnesota organization that donated to support the firefighter’s families…”

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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 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 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?

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Interview with author of book about Yarnell Hill Fire

This video is an interview with Kyle Dickman, the author of On The Burning Edge, a recently released book about the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona and the 19 firefighters who died there.

At one point the interviewer asks Mr. Dickman who to blame for the fatalities. After he gives her a name, she then throws Mr. Dickman under the bus, saying “It’s not about finger pointing…”

The truth is, until people who were there are willing and able to talk about what they saw and heard that day, we may not know why the crew left the safety of the black, a previously burned area, and walked through unburned brush where they were overrun by the fire.

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Yarnell Hill Fire families settle lawsuit

memory yarnell hill fireSome of the families of the deceased Granite Mountain Hotshots settled their lawsuit the day before the second anniversary of that tragic day. On June 29 the families of 12 of the crewmembers settled a wrongful-death suit for $50,000 each along with some reforms they hope will help to prevent similar catastrophes. Two years ago today 19 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona when they were entrapped and overrun by a wildfire that later burned into the community of Yarnell, destroying 127 structures.

The resolution was announced Monday at a news conference. In addition to the $50,000 for each of 12 families, the state of Arizona will give $10,000 to each of the seven families that did not participate in the lawsuit.

Granite Mountain

Granite Mountain Hotshots hiking to their assignment, June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

The settlement also stipulates that the state will make a “good faith effort” to implement reforms suggested by the families of the hotshots, but their implementation is not binding and will be up to the sole discretion of the agency director.

  • The state Forestry Division will ask the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to do a question-and-answer session and a staff ride so that firefighters can better understand what happened that day two years ago.
  • The state will recommend additional training for initial attack of new fires.
  • State Forestry will volunteer to participate as a testing site for new wildfire technology, including radios and GPS tracking devices. One of the issues on the Yarnell Hill Fire was that it is possible that few if any other firefighters on the fire were aware of the location of the crew and the danger that they were in.

The $220 million lawsuit was settled for a total of $670,000, plus the “good faith” concessions.

The agreement occurred without any testimony from Brendan McDonough, the only survivor from the 20-person crew. Attorneys for State Forestry repeatedly sought his information about the fire under oath, but a deposition never occurred. Mr. McDonough has said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder since the fire.

Brendan McDonough

Brendan McDonough. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

At the time of the fatalities he was in a different location serving as a lookout, providing intelligence to the crew about the location of the fire. The largest remaining question about the Yarnell Hill Fire is why the 19 firefighters left the safety of a previously burned area and hiked through unburned brush where they were overrun by the fire. Nothing in the two official reports shed any light on this important question.

An article in the April 3 edition of the Arizona Republic includes information that was previously unknown to the public. The newspaper reported that Mr. McDonough overheard a radio conversation between the Division Supervisor, Eric Marsh, and Jesse Steed who was temporarily serving as the Hotshots’ crew boss. Supposedly Mr. Marsh who normally was the Crew Boss or Superintendent of the crew, told Mr. Steed to have the crew leave the safety zone and to join him at a ranch.

The question of why the crew was in that location may never be answered, unless Mr. McDonough elaborates on the issue in the book he is working on. In April it was announced that he signed a deal with New York Times bestselling author Stephan Talty to write “the untold story from the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire”.

Below is an excerpt from a June 29, 2015 article in the Arizona Republic:

Attorney Pat McGroder said the goal of the 12 families was to prevent future tragedies and improve wildland-firefighting safety. He emphasized they were not out to make money and said the minimal compensation and promised firefighting improvements underscore that point.

McGroder had strong words for the federal government, which banned the Blue Ridge Hotshots from talking publicly about what they may have heard over the radios that day.

“At sometime, Mr. McDonough may or may not choose to publicly describe what he saw, what he heard that day,” McGroder said. “The idea that the federal government is withholding information … speaks to the lack of understanding and empathy that they should have for these families. So, we would publicly call for … the national Forest Service to let their people talk.”

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Wildfire Briefs, June 1, 2015

Students evacuated from Florida dorm

About 100 students at the University of Central Florida were told to evacuate Sunday evening when a wildfire was burning in the general area. It turned out that the fire was knocked down at one acre, and the students fairly quickly repopulated the dorm.

Animal rescue #1

Bobcat rescued wildfire

I don’t know that I’d call it “miraculous“, but here’s the story from WINK:

Firefighters in Lee County made a miraculous save during a brush fire [last week in southern Florida].

While fighting the fire, they rescued a two week old baby bobcat that was all alone. Florida Fish and Wildlife officials say the bobcat is lucky to be alive and only sustained minor injuries like bumps and a blister on his paw.

Officials also told WINK that they left the bobcat in a green area and believe his mother would find him, but will check the area later.

FWC says they the bobcat would not return to the wild if experts had raised him.

Animal rescue #2

Owl rescue

From the British Columbia Fire Info:

On Tuesday, May 26 the Sentinel Unit Crew from the Southeast Fire Centre discovered this baby owl on the Little Bobtail Lake fire. He had fallen from his nest and was too young to fly. He was rescued by a Wildfire Management Branch Falling Coordinator based out of the Cobble Hill Zone in the Coastal Fire Centre. A wildlife rehabilitation centre was consulted before the owl was rescued.

He was taken in by Second Chance Wildlife Recovery Centre in Quesnel. Today, he will be flown to the O.W.L. Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Delta, where he will be raised with an adult male and female owl. Once the rescued owl is able to survive on his own, he will be returned to where the crew members found him so he can continue life in his natural habitat.

He was found in the black, outside of his nest, unable to fly and vulnerable to prey. He was a little scared, but is now healthy and happy to have a second chance at life. Crews have named him Norman, after Norman Lake.

Memorial planned for Granite Mountain 19

Organizers in Prescott, Arizona are considering designs for one or more memorials to honor the 19 firefighters that were killed while working on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. The groups are discussing one or more of three possibilities:

  • Simple white crosses at the fatality site, with a sign and a low wall to define the area;
  • Something at the trailhead along Highway 89 in the Yarnell area;
  • A memorial on the southeast side of the Courthouse Plaza in Prescott.
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