National News

July 23, 2013

Fire site reveals charred landscape, rough terrain

YARNELL, Ariz. — The location sits in a basin surrounded on three sides by charred, boulder-strewn mountains. Blackened cactuses appear as if they melted in the flames. Rocks the size of pickup trucks are perched precariously on the steep hillsides. An American flag flaps in the wind near a Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt that hangs on a burned cactus as a makeshift memorial to the men who died there.

Authorities provided a tour Tuesday of the location where 19 elite firefighters, known as Hotshots, were engulfed in flames last month while protecting a former gold rush town in Arizona from a volatile wildfire.

The site provides perspective of the terrain crew members faced as they found themselves trapped by a wall of fast-moving flames while erratic winds whipped the blaze in all directions.

Officials speculated the fire quickly shifted toward them, forcing the men to retreat into the bowl beneath the mountains, the hillsides way too steep to even attempt to outrun the flames.

“It was like a blowtorch in a tunnel,” said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Division of Forestry, which was managing the fire around Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. “The fire’s rate of speed and intensity was beyond comprehension.”

Prescott Wildland Fire Chief Darrell Willis, who helped form the Hotshots crew, said it appeared the men quickly tried to clear the area of scrub and brush that could fuel the fire, using hatchets, chain saws and shovels, hoping they could endure the intense heat as the blaze bore down.

They deployed their emergency shelters, but the heat was too much. All 19 died at the scene. The 20th crew member, who was serving as a lookout, was the only survivor.

The blaze ended up destroying more than 100 homes before it was fully contained on July 10.

The fire began with a lightning strike on Friday, June 28, and worsened by the hour through the weekend — at one point causing flames up to 20 feet high. The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was called in on the morning of June 30 to help protect the town of Yarnell in the foothills south of Prescott.

Afternoon thunderstorms and associated winds of more than 50 mph whipped the fire into an inferno as 19 of the Hotshots climbed over a ridge.

They likely saw the fire advancing on a nearby ranch, and were headed there to save the structure when the blaze suddenly turned toward them, Willis said. The fire forced them to retreat to the relatively flat area surrounded by mountains where they found themselves trapped, he said, adding that he lost  “19 adopted sons” on that fateful day.

“The heat was so intense their shelters broke down,” Willis said as he stood on the edge of the site, now encircled by a chain link fence.

A ranch that was to serve as the Hotshots safety zone could be seen about 500 yards in the distance. Willis said the fire hooked around the men, blocking their way out of the fire’s path and backing them up to the mountains.

“They protected themselves as a last resort,” he said. “I don’t think they were aware of how quick” the fire was moving.

“This is the most extreme fire behavior I have ever witnessed,” Willis added. “I’m sickened. I’m saddened.”

A national team of investigators has finished gathering evidence from the scene and interviewing other firefighters. It’s expected their report on the fatalities will be completed sometime in late August or early September.

“There are a lot of whys, whats and what-ifs that you just have to realize we can’t answer,” Paxon said. “Those answers died with the crew.”

 

1
Text Only
National News
  • 10 Things to Know for Monday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday:

    April 20, 2014

  • Ukraine, Russia trade blame for shootout in east

    Within hours of an Easter morning shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming militant Ukrainian nationalists and Russian state television stations aired pictures of supposed proof of their involvement in the attack that left at least three people dead.

    April 20, 2014

  • In West Bank, teen offenders face different fates

    The boys were both 15, with the crackly voices and awkward peach fuzz of adolescence. They lived just a few minutes away from one another in the West Bank. And both were accused of throwing stones at vehicles, one day after the other.

    April 20, 2014

  • Study: Fuels from corn waste not better than gas

    Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a study shows, challenging the Obama administration’s conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change.

    April 20, 2014

  • Fracking foes cringe as unions back drilling boom

    After early complaints that out-of-state firms got the most jobs, some local construction trade workers and union members in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia say they’re now benefiting in a big way from the Marcellus and Utica Shale oil and gas boom.

    April 20, 2014

  • In Colorado, a pot holiday tries to go mainstream

    Once the province of activists and stoners, the traditional pot holiday of April 20 has gone mainstream in the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana.

    April 20, 2014

  • ‘Capt. America’ tops box office for third week

    Captain America continues to vanquish box office foes, triumphing in ticket sales for the third consecutive week and dominating over megastar Johnny Depp’s new movie.

    April 20, 2014

  • Probe could complicate Rick Perry’s prospects

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent a record 14 years in office vanquishing nearly all who dared confront him: political rivals, moms against mandatory vaccines for sixth graders, a coyote in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    April 20, 2014

  • NASA’s space station Robonaut finally getting legs

    Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs.

    April 19, 2014

  • Documents detail another delayed GM recall

    Government documents show that General Motors waited years to recall nearly 335,000 Saturn Ions for power steering failures despite getting thousands of consumer complaints and warranty repair claims.

    April 19, 2014