Prescott Fire Department Division Chief Darrell Willis on Tuesday escorted members of the media to the site on the Yarnell Hill fire where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed June 30. John Dougherty, an investigative reporter who has written for the New York Times, was there and recorded these videos of Chief Willis’ briefing. They are embedded here with his permission. John also wrote an article about his visit to the site.
The first video is the Chief providing his understanding of what happened, and in the second he takes questions from the reporters.
In the photo below of the entrapment site, which is looking toward the west, the road was punched in by a dozer after the incident to facilitate the removal of the bodies, which were at the end of the road. The photo was taken by Wade Ward of the Prescott FD, and is used here with permission.
This is the first time I have heard that the Hotshots lit an escape fire. Chief Willis said the tactic is very common. Escape fires, an emergency procedure to save firefighter’s lives by removing fuel before the main fire approaches, are actually extremely rare. The Chief may have been referring to backfiring, or burning out, which are much more common.
The most famous use of an escape fire was on the 1949 Mann Gulch fire when Wag Dodge, the crew boss, lit one. He then got into the new black and survived, but the rest of the crew did not understand what he was doing, (lighting more fire? WTF?) and 13 of them were killed.
Another point that the Chief brought up is something I have seen mentioned once or twice elsewhere — the fire approached the fatality site from the east, blown by the wind into the mouth of the U-shaped or box canyon. This may have been a surprise for the Hotshots, who could have thought the fire was north of them on the other side of the ridge. The thunderstorm with its outflowing winds would have caused the wind direction to change as it moved from the northeast to the southwest, possibly switching from coming out of the north-northeast or northeast, to the east.
The 3-D map below is another view of the entrapment site, this time looking toward the north. The ranch, at the lower-right, is 1,900 feet from the site.