Lone survivor from Yarnell Hill Fire publishes book

In “My Lost Brothers” Brendan McDonough writes about his journey of becoming a wildland firefighter, and the loss of his 19 “brothers” in 2013 on the fire in Arizona.

Above: Most, but not all, of the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots at the world’s largest alligator juniper tree in 2013. The crew protected it while fighting the Doce Fire near Prescott, Arizona about two weeks before the tragedy at Yarnell. Photo by Chris Mackenzie.

Last August I interviewed Brendan McDonough, the only firefighter of the 20-person Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that survived the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona in June, 2013

He told me that he was working on a book about his life – his background, drug problems, burglary conviction, and becoming a father at age 19. “That’s what I’m saying in the book,” he said. “I’m sharing the stories and the great memories I have of them, and I’m telling my stories about Yarnell – what I saw, how I felt, and what I think happened.”

He said working on the book was therapeutic for him, collaborating with best-selling author Stephan Talty, author of A Captain’s Duty about Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama that was captured by Somali pirates and later rescued by Navy SEALs.

My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor, is scheduled for release on May 3, 2016 but may be available before that in bookstores. After reading an advance copy, I found it to be an extremely personal account of Mr. McDonough’s life before becoming a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, his experiences while on the crew for three seasons, and how he dealt with the tragedy — the fire that killed 19 of his “brothers” on June 30, 2013.

The 20 men were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona, 90 miles northwest of Phoenix that day. A passing thunderstorm created very strong outflow winds that suddenly changed the direction the fire was spreading, forcing it to make a right turn. The fire raced toward 19 men on the crew, trapping and killing them in a box canyon. Mr. McDonough survived because he was serving as a lookout in a location separate from the others. He also had a close call as the blaze burned toward him, but was rescued by the crew Superintendent on another Hotshot crew who gave him a ride out of danger on a small utility vehicle.

I was hoping that the book would reveal more about WHY the 19 men left the safety of a previously burned area (the “black”) and hiked cross-country through dense unburned brush where they were entrapped by the fire. That is a crucial piece of the puzzle not yet revealed to the public. A piece that could add to the body of knowledge about firefighting that could be a valuable lesson learned — possibly preventing similar fatalities.

But a clue was in our interview eight months ago when he said:

I would never … if my brothers did make mistakes, I would never keep that a secret to put in a book. There’s nothing that is going to be in there that people don’t already know.

And he was true to his word. While he revealed a great deal about his private life, there is little about what happened on June 30, 2013 that has not already come out in the investigations, reports, and the video recordings made by various firefighters that day that included audio of radios used by firefighters. While there are many quotes of radio conversations in the book, most of them appear to have been previously revealed in the recordings. There are no earth-shaking revelations about who made the crucial decisions, or why, that led to the Granite Mountain Hotshots being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mr. McDonough wrote in the book:

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Wildfire briefing, November 2, 2015

Marijuana farms destroyed by California fires

According to reports, the crops from up to 100 marijuana farms were destroyed in wildfires in California this summer. Hardest hit were facilities in Calaveras and Lake counties — the Butte, Rocky, and Valley fires.

State of Arizona argues it can’t be sued over Yarnell Hill Fire

From the Arizona Capitol Times:

Yarnell residents burned out of their homes in 2013 have no right to sue Arizona for their losses, lawyers for the state are arguing.

In filings with the state Court of Appeals, Assistant Attorney General Brock Heathcotte acknowledged the state did attempt to fight the blaze that destroyed more than 120 homes and resulted in the deaths of 19 firefighters. But he said that was only done to protect the state’s own land, “not to provide fire-suppression services to the private-property owners to protect their property.”

“The Yarnell Hill Fire was a natural consequence of natural conditions,” he wrote. “It was naturally ignited (by a lightning strike) on wildland, was fueled by natural vegetation, and spread in response to hot, dry, and windy conditions.”

And what all that means, Heathcotte argued, is there is no right to sue the state even though the fire on state land spread to private property and was not contained there.

The filings come in response to a bid by homeowners to have their day in court. Attorney Craig Knapp, representing the plaintiffs, contends the state is liable because it undertook the chore of defending the community but was negligent in that performance…

Teen who started wildfire to meet with homeowners affected

From Corvallis Gazette-Times:

The Corvallis teen who admitted to starting the Chip Ross Park Fire in September 2014 is set to meet face-to-face with the homeowners and tenants affected by the fire.

Salem-based Neighbor to Neighbor Inc., a mediation company, has been contracted by the Benton County Juvenile Court to facilitate the process between Dawson DeWolfe and the victims of the September 2014 brush fire that destroyed 86 acres south of Chip Ross Park.

In January, Dawson DeWolfe, 16, admitted to misdemeanor charges of reckless burning, reckless endangerment and second-degree criminal mischief in a disposition — the juvenile equivalent of sentencing — in front of Benton County Judge Matthew Donohue. As part of the disposition, DeWolfe was required to attend restitution mediation.

Charlie Ikard, Neighbor to Neighbor executive director, said the mediation process could take several months. Neighbor to Neighbor representatives recently sent out letters to homeowners and tenants who experienced financial loss and direct damage to their properties as a result of the fire. Pre-mediation interviews with the homeowners are scheduled between Nov. 16 and Dec. 4…

Volunteers build sheds for wildfire victims

Building shed
Building a storage shed for a fire victim in Okanogan County, Washington. Screen shot from KXLY.

Some residents whose homes burned in the Tunk Block Fire in Washington are receiving recovery assistance from volunteers. A group from Veteran Community Response, working through Foursquare Church, so far have constructed eight storage sheds for fire victims that they can use while rebuilding their homes.

Wildfire briefing, October 26, 2015

Oregon declares wildfire season to be over

Bald Butte area fire
A fire in the Bald Butte area started near Springfield, Oregon October 10 when a burning car ignited vegetation above Forest Service Road 23. Dry fuels and gusty winds left 24 acres of burnt timber and brush on national forest lands. Oregon Department of Forestry photo by Greg Wagenblast.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has declared the 2015 wildfire season to be over. Rain and the arrival of cool, moist weather patterns prompted the declaration as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Oregon experienced a third consecutive difficult wildfire season this year. As of Sept. 11, total wildfire costs totaled more than $211 million in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. (That figure may include costs incurred by all agencies in the state, including federal, not just the ODF.)

The Oregon state government has an insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London which provides up to $25 million of state government fire suppression costs that exceed $50 million. The $3.5 million cost of the policy is split between the state and private timberland owners.

Board approves design for Yarnell Hill Fire memorial

The Yarnell Hill Memorial Site Board has approved a conceptual design for a memorial to commemorate the site where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were entrapped by fire and killed June 30, 2013. According to the Daily Courier, the design by architect Bill Gauslow “consists of 19 white marble crosses, each placed where a man fell, surrounded by 19 low walls, spaced a short distance apart, and built of rip-rap rock.” The memorial would be placed at the fatality site which will be purchased by the Arizona State Parks department. Interpretive signs, one for each of the 19 firefighters, would also be placed every 1/10 mile along the 1.9 mile trail from the parking lot to the memorial site.

Researchers think fires were more common 300 million years ago

Scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London together with colleagues from the USA, Russia and China, have discovered that forest fires across the globe were more common between 300 and 250 million years ago than they are today. This is thought to be due to a higher level of oxygen in the atmosphere at that time.

Full text of the research article.

Landfill near nuclear waste site has been burning for six years

From the Chicago Tribune:

Beneath the surface of a St. Louis-area landfill lurk two things that should never meet: a slow-burning fire and a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste, separated by no more than 1,200 feet.

Government officials have quietly adopted an emergency plan in case the smoldering embers ever reach the waste, a potentially “catastrophic event” that could send up a plume of radioactive smoke over a densely populated area near the city’s main airport.

Although the fire at Bridgeton Landfill has been burning since at least 2010, the plan for a worst-case scenario was developed only a year ago and never publicized until this week, when St. Louis radio station KMOX first obtained a copy…

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…”

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.