Outside Magazine covers the Yarnell Hill Fire

Granite Mountain Hotshots Yarnell Hill Fire
Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

Outside Magazine has a lengthy article in their November issue about the last days of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed when they were overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire southeast of Prescott, Arizona on June 30, 2013.

Author Kyle Dickman obviously spent a lot of time interviewing Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the sole survivor from the crew, and several family members of the 19 hotshots. The article not only provides some personal information about some crew members and their spouses, but also has a few details about the fire suppression activities that has not yet been made public.

One of the devices used by the author was to tell us what some of the hotshots were thinking, or how they made decisions at key times. It was sometimes preceded by phrases such as “they would have been thinking…”, but it was distracting as I read it, since those firefighters died before they could tell anyone what they were thinking, or why they made certain decisions. Usually Mr. Dickman’s assumptions seemed logical, but he took a bold step by using that writing trick.

For the article, Mr. McDonough apparently provided some information about his actions on the fire as well as his conversations with the Granite Mountain crew leadership and the superintendent of the nearby Blue Ridge Hotshots the afternoon of the entrapment

Surprisingly the article includes a progression map, showing the spread of the fire at 10 to 20 minute intervals before the crew was trapped. It would be interesting to know the source of that very detailed information, or if Mr. McDonough was able to see all of the fire and remembered or recorded the data.

In the excerpt from the article below, “Eric” is Eric Marsh, the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who during the Yarnell Hill Fire was serving as Division Supervisor for the geographic division which included the Granite Mountain Hotshots. “Donut”, Mr. McDonough, was away from the crew serving as a lookout, adding an element of safety for the crew by observing the location of the fire and taking hourly weather observations. The article explained that one of the reasons he was selected for that task was that he had just recovered from an illness, and the relatively light duty would give him another day to recover. The sad thing is, any firefighter would have trouble recovering from what was supposed to have been “light duty” that June 30 afternoon.

From Outside Magazine:

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“THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN crew could see Donut on the UTV racing across the flats. They could see the helicopters and air tankers pivoting from Peeples Valley to Yarnell and dozens of emergency vehicles, lights flashing, speeding down Highway 89 toward Glen Ilah, the subdivision where Truman lived. It would have been difficult for the hotshots, who had been trained to help however they can, to sit idly by and watch houses burn. They would have been thinking of their fellow firefighters placing themselves in harm’s way.

With conditions changing so dramatically, Eric and the crew’s leadership—[acting crew superintendent Captain Jesse] Steed, Clayton [Whitted], Travis [Carter], Robert [Caldwell]—would have gathered for a moment on the ridge to discuss their options while the other hotshots sat perched on white granite boulders watching the drama unfold.

Do we hunker down in the black and do nothing but watch Yarnell burn? Or do we head down there, do some point protection, and try to save a couple of homes? Eric would have made the decision. He couldn’t have imagined that, by heading for town, he was leading his crew toward a series of increasingly compromised circumstances, each more desperate than the last.

He radioed out that Granite Mountain was moving back toward Yarnell.”

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Thanks go out to Bruce

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

10 thoughts on “Outside Magazine covers the Yarnell Hill Fire”

  1. This article is wonderfully written, with many poignant details. However, the title of the piece refers to the “truth of the Yarnell Hill fire”. The central question of this entire event is “why?” – as in why did they come off that ridge. The author’s contribution to answering this question is opinion and supposition, hardly the stuff to base definitive “truth” on. He glosses over this crucial area by writing what they might have said or thought. In this light, this article is not that helpful to understanding this tragedy. Maybe the final report of the investigation will shed light on this, maybe not. We may never really know. If so, we will have to live with that. But that will not diminish who these men were in the slightest.

    1. The title of the piece is indeed unfortunate. Keep in mind that writers RARELY title their own pieces; that title was very likely chosen by an editor and not the writer.

  2. The article itself and timing is actually pretty unfortunate. It seems to be based on a great deal of speculation. This is being passed around social media as an “amazing article on what actually happened that day.” What is fact and what is speculation isn’t clear…what people “would have done” or “would have been thinking” is not fact or truth. There are things in that article that are presented as fact, but where did those “facts” come from? The fire progression map? The timing of the crew coming down the ridge? And, do hotshots actually deploy in “descending order of experience” ? I’m not on a hand crew so I don’t know, but I’m told in my training to NOT wait for others to get in their shelters…GET IN.

    I’m going to wait for the official investigation report. But, the public is embracing this article as fact and again creating more speculation.

  3. The day I saw the picture of the deployment site, all I could say was….They left the black, THEY LEFT THE BLACK. Screaming in my head. Why would they, how could they? I can’t speak for them, no one can. It is what it is. Sadness and pain, a sinking feeling knowing a choice was made that was not good. Knowing that it can’t be changed back and lives have been changed forever.

  4. The truth will prevail in God’s time- there is many investigations going- we met with and hiked with OSHA today and it was very uplifting to us- I know the photos we shared will help in the investigations of all. The article was well done and you can read our comment on that page of what we thought of the article- our heart goes out to the families and loved ones of these 19 as well as the people in this community that was effected by the Yarnell Hill fire. To have the article lay blame- I guarantee we will go the extra mile to ensure the facts with sources and documented sources at that and in His time this will show who the true person was behind such a tragedy- I gained some important knowledge as I was able to scope areas I could not prior and I will be matching it up to 6-30-13 footage-

  5. If you go to Google Earth and dial down to ground level, you get the perspective of a 3rd dimension at this location. It allowed me to get a better idea of how they could have lost sight of the fire. It also gave me a slight perspective of how the house below might have looked tantalizingly close. For what its worth.

  6. I was a CDF Crew Foremen at the Puerta La Cruz Camp from 1966 (I was on the Loop Fire not more than 200 yards from the El Cariso and Del Rosa Hot Shots) and had four very bad experiences. All developed in seconds, not minutes. All were in extremely dry fuels and I was the one who sounded the alarm on the Piru Canyon fore up the Burma Road when the column began to collapse and the fire ran downhill faster that uphill. It was so hot it actually cause steel framework oil derricks to fail and fall. The only thing that got us out of trouble was a conscious plan conveyed to the crew about where the Safety Islands were (that wasn’t even an accepted term then) and what to do and where to go if we had to run for it. I’ll bet this situation developed that quickly. BUT… we will really never know. Reports are political documents used as a shield.

  7. Photos don’t lie. I’m hoping that the factual report yet to come will do better than …. “with a fire that had just burned a seemingly impossible four miles in about 20 minutes.” (from Outside Magazine) Every article that I’ve read has inconsistencies that simply don’t jive with the 2 texted images from the Hotshots. Take a look at my “research” below (I believe it to be pretty sound). Load the coordinates into Google Earth and do your own math for a few different issues after reading Outside’s story.

    The view from the lunch spot (approximately 34°13’35.16″N 112°47’17.37″W) image texted by Andrew Ashcraft somewhere around 14:00 (I believe) is east-northeast with Peeples Valley in the distance. I figure the dark column of smoke (roughly 34°14’38.18″N 112°46’33.32″W) rising beyond the two peaks is in an area of dense large vegetation just north of the peaks. The peaks are less than 1 ½ miles from the lunch spot.

    The final texted image from roughly 34°13’38.26″N 112°47’24.16″W at 16:04 by Wade Parker clearly shows the fire’s edge, center left, at roughly 34°14’2.24″N 112°46’47.85″W about ¾ mile to the east-northeast.

    The safety zone ranch is at 34°13’9.62″N 112°46’14.96″W less than 1 ¼ miles away to the southeast. The distance between the visible fire and the ranch is 1.15 miles at 16:04.

    1. Thanks for the research, Lone Ranger. But keep in mind, even if you know when the texted images were received, that could be different from the time the images were taken.

  8. Thanks for this website. I have read every article available trying to get an understanding of this situation. Lone Ranger states that at 1604 picture fire edge is 1.15 mile from ranch. I understand what Bill is saying that the picture could have been taken and sent at different times. So it seems that either way the fire was close at least by 1604. I will continue to read every scrap of information that I can find.

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