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9:12 PM Tue, Nov. 20th

Community commemorates 5-year mark of Granite Mountain Hotshot tragedy

The Granite Mountain Hotshots watch the Yarnell Hill Fire from a burned-out area on June 30, 2013, just hours before the wildfire blocked their escape through a valley and overran their position, killing them. (Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie/Courtesy of his family)

The Granite Mountain Hotshots watch the Yarnell Hill Fire from a burned-out area on June 30, 2013, just hours before the wildfire blocked their escape through a valley and overran their position, killing them. (Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie/Courtesy of his family)

PRESCOTT — Even five years later, the news that 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew had died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire is devastating.

The June 30, 2013, deaths of the elite Prescott firefighters unleashed an outpouring of grief that continues today — the five-year mark of the tragedy.

Meanwhile, plenty of developments have occurred in the wake of the heartbreak. Among them: formation of numerous Hotshot-focused foundations; the release of at least four books on the tragedy; the filming and release of a feature movie; the resolution of Hotshot-related pension claims and lawsuits; and the release of a number of government reports.

A LOOK BACK

Based on reports that came out in the months after the tragedy, the Hotshots had worked most of the day June 30, 2013, trying to control the erratic Yarnell Hill Fire. By late afternoon, they were headed to what they believed to be a safe spot when the fire overtook them.

This is a brief look back at the events leading up to the moment of the Hotshots’ deployment of their fire shelters, along with some of the major developments that occurred over the ensuing five years.

• 5 p.m. Friday, June 28, 2013 — Thunderstorms produce multiple lightning strikes southwest of Prescott. Seven fires reportedly were discovered in the area that afternoon, including one west of Yarnell. Statewide, 37 active fire were burning.

• 5:36 p.m. Friday — An air tanker previously assigned to the nearly-extinguished Doce Fire in Prescott is directed to Yarnell to report on the status of the newly named Yarnell Hill Fire. The pilot describes the fire as “in a boulder field, has no vehicular access, and shows very little smoke.”

• 7:40 p.m. Friday — Full suppression efforts are planned for the next morning.

• Saturday morning, June 29, 2013 — Two single-engine air tankers arrive in Yarnell by mid-morning and drop fire retardant on the fire’s south and west flanks.

• 12:25 p.m. Saturday — The air tankers depart Yarnell, after reporting that the south and west flanks of the fire are “secure.”

• 4 p.m. Saturday — Winds increase, and the fire’s incident command requests that the tankers return to the Yarnell Hill Fire. One does, but the other stays in Wickenburg for potential new fires from active lighting across central Arizona.

• 5:42 p.m. Saturday — A DC-10, termed a Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT), is made available for use in Yarnell, but incident command reportedly declines the large tanker, “based on fire conditions.”

• 7:38 p.m. Saturday — The fire has grown to more than 100 acres.

• 8 p.m. Saturday — Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots receive orders to report to their Prescott station by 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning. They set out in their buggies for Yarnell by 6 the next morning.

• 7 a.m. Sunday, June 30, 2013 — After attending a fire briefing at the Yarnell Fire Station, the Granite Mountain crew members drive through Yarnell and discuss the purportedly “bomb-proof” safety zone at the nearby Boulder Springs Ranch.

• 11 a.m. Sunday — The fire had grown to 1,500 acres, according to “My Lost Brothers,” the book by lone Granite Mountain Hotshot survivor Brendan McDonough.

• Noon Sunday — McDonough takes his place as Granite Mountain’s lookout, while the other Hotshots plan to construct a line directly along the fire’s edge.

• Between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m., winds pick up, and the fire becomes “very active.” An immediate evacuation for Yarnell residents is requested of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office.

• 3:50 p.m. Sunday — Granite Mountain Superintendent Eric Marsh reports that the winds are starting to get “squirrelly” up on the ridge.

• 3:55 p.m. Sunday — After the fire overtakes McDonough’s “trigger point,” a Blue Ridge Hotshot crew member picks him up near his lookout site, and drops him off at the Granite Mountain vehicles. McDonough and Blue Ridge Hotshots begin moving the Granite Mountain trucks.

• 4:04 p.m. Sunday — Marsh reports that the crew is “going to make our way to our escape route,” prompting the Blue Ridge superintendent to radio back, “You guys are in the black (burned-out area), right?” Marsh’s response: “Yeah, we’re picking our way through the black … going out toward the ranch.”

• 4:30 p.m. Sunday — The fire pushes into the communities of Gen Ilah and Yarnell — ultimately destroying more than 120 homes.

• 4:39 p.m. Sunday — A static-filled transmission is heard on radio communications: “Breaking in on Arizona 16, Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of a flaming front.” Only able to understand fragments of the communications and still assuming that the Granite Mountain crew is in a safe area, the aerial supervision staffer initially believes the transmission is from one of the units protecting buildings in Yarnell.

• Marsh comes back on the radio, urgently clarifying: “Yeah, I’m here with the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush and I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh-shelters.”

• An aerial supervision staffer reportedly makes seven attempts during the next four minutes to reach the Granite Mountain crew members to determine their location, but is unable to establish contact. “There is no more contact with the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew,” the incident report states.

• 6:10 p.m. Sunday — A helicopter pilot spots the Hotshots’ shelters approximately a mile south-southeast of their last known location.

• 6:35 p.m. Sunday — Landing 500 yards away, a DPS officer/paramedic hikes to the site and confirms that none of the men survived. The location was about 600 yards west of the Boulder Springs Ranch, the spot originally identified as a “bomb-proof” safe zone.

photo

The Yarnell Hill fire, as of early on July 1, 2013, according to the Incident Command. (Courier illustration)

• Tuesday, July 9, 2013 — After more than a week of grieving, thousands come together for a memorial service at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley to pay tribute to the 19 fallen Hotshots.

• September 23, 2013 — the Arizona State Forestry Department releases a Serious Accident Investigation Report that concludes: “The Hotshots were traveling through an unburned area toward a safety zone when a rapidly advancing fire of great intensity overtook them. The fire’s extreme speed of 10 to 12 miles per hour eliminated any opportunity for the crew to reach the safety zone or return up to the canyon rim.”

• May 22, 2014 — the family of fallen Hotshot Andrew Ashcraft wins Public Safety Personnel Retirement System pension benefits in a Prescott Public Safety Retirement Board hearing.

• Feb. 23, 2015 — families of fallen Hotshots Sean Misner and William Warneke win pension benefits from the Prescott Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board.

• June 29, 2015 — the State of Arizona settles a wrongful death lawsuit filed by 12 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ families.

• May 3, 2016 — Granite Mountain Hotshot survivor Brendan McDonough releases a book, “My Lost Brothers,” about his life and the loss of his fellow Hotshots.

• November 2017 — Diane J. Helms releases a book, “Fire on the Wind” about the experiences she and her husband Lee had during the Yarnell Hill Fire, as well as the aftermath of the deaths of 19 Hotshots less than a half-mile from the Helms’ Yarnell-area ranch.

• Oct. 13, 2017 — release of feature film, “Only the Brave” — depicting the events leading up to the Yarnell Hill Fire and the death of 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-642-0951.