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Fire on the Mountain, Death on the Ground

A statement on the City of Prescott website in the City Service section reads:

Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, part of the Prescott Fire Department, lost their lives Sunday, June 30th, while battling the 2,000-acre Yarnell Hill fire that ignited Friday south of Prescott.

This austere message carries the grief but little of the horror of the accident that took the lives of 19 members of the highly trained firefighting crew who battled the Yarnell Hill fire. While the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating the deaths, some details have become available about the last moments of these men as they struggled to realize that the fire they fought in order to save the property of others had turned on them.

Back-country firefighting is inherently dangerous, and the risk of serious injury or death is always present. Eventually understanding this disaster may help prevent it from happening again.

The emergency progressed quickly:

  • The crew’s lookout was forced to use an escape route as high winds stirred the receding fire.
  • The skilled crew chose a route down a box canyon, a decision that may have cost them their lives.
  • Surprised and encircled by fire, the crew fought to create a clearing for themselves, deploying emergency shelters as a last measure.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) medic who first reached the site described the area as a moonscape, with the immediate area incinerated by the fire so hot it cracked granite boulders and left hatchets burned down to metal. Hearing voices at the scene, the DPS medic hoped for survivors but found only squawking radios. The inferno left 19 good men dead, with only five inside intact emergency shelters.

Wrongful death lawsuits may yet be filed. In the words of Eric Marsh, the crew superintendent who died that day: “[W]e are not nameless or faceless. We are not expendable. We are not satisfied with mediocrity. We are not willing to accept being average. We are not quitters.” Questions have to be answered. Despite the risk, lives were lost too soon.

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