Final photos, videos of Granite Mountain Hotshots come to light
Christopher MacKenzie left an unexpected gift when he perished alongside 18 of his fellow Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30 in the Yarnell Hill wildfire.
When his father Mike received Chris' charred belongings from the medical examiner's office, one item appeared untouched by fire: a small Canon PowerShot digital camera. Even the cloth cover was unscathed.
"My stepdaughter pulled the card out and stuck it in the computer and said, 'Hey, check this out,'" Mike related. He came over and saw photos of the Granite Mountain Hotshots working the Doce wildfire near Prescott June 18-22, as well as the West Spruce wildfire near Prescott on June 28.
Then he saw 14 photos of the hotshots working on the Yarnell Hill wildfire on June 30 about 30 miles south of Prescott. Chris shot the last photo at 4:02 p.m., less than an hour before he died.
"I can't explain how I felt," Mike said. "The first thing was, you know, they're going to need it for the investigation.
"Then I thought why - and I still wonder - did that survive when nothing else did."
He was surprised that authorities didn't temporarily hold onto the camera and its memory card, as they did Chris' phone.
When Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis came to Chris' funeral in Hemet, Calif., on July 13, Mike handed him a DVD containing the photos and videos.
"He just said, 'Here's some pictures you might be interested in," Willis recalled. MacKenzie asked him to share the images with the families of the other hotshot crew members, too.
Willis didn't check them out until he returned home to Prescott.
"It was like, really? Wow. I can't believe this," he recalled. He immediately contacted the team investigating the wildfire for the Arizona State Forestry Division, who also talked to Mike MacKenzie.
The photos and videos show that as late as 4:02 p.m., the hotshots had stopped on top of a ridge while Captain Jesse Steed was talking on the radio to crew Superintendent Eric Marsh, who had delegated his duties to Steed while he was serving as a division supervisor.
Besides a photo that fellow hotshot Wade Parker texted out a few minutes later, they are the last known photos and videos of the hotshot crew. Right afterwards, the crew headed down the mountain.
The Courier posted Chris' online at 10 a.m. Saturday as a report on the hotshots' deaths was released, the first time they have been made public.
"I really think it's going to be pivotal in this investigation," Willis said.
The photos and short videos told Willis several things. Marsh was not with his crew at 4 p.m.; he had likely been scouting the fire to the north and was heading back south toward his crew. The crew had stopped in an area blackened by fire, so the crew ultimately decided to leave a safe area for unburned areas. And below them was the knoll where Granite Mountain Hotshot Brendan McDonough had previously been standing as lookout, with a road cut west for the buggies of the Granite Mountain and Blue Ridge hotshots.
Willis says Steed is in the videos talking on the radio to Marsh, who is not visible in any of the Yarnell Hill wildfire photos or videos. Both 9-second videos were shot in close succession around 4 p.m.
"I was just saying, I knew this was coming when I called you and asked what your comfort level was," Marsh says to Steed in the first short video. "I could just feel it, you know."
Steed replies in the second video, "I copy, and it's almost made it to that two-track road that we walked in on."
Mike MacKenzie personally delivered his son's photos to Joe Woyjeck, father of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot Kevin Woyjeck, 21. Both Mike and Joe are firefighters from Southern California, and they have become good friends since their sons' deaths. Mike is a retired captain from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who now lives in Tennessee. He even served on a few of the same wildfires as his son. Joe is an L.A. County Fire Department captain.
"I'll treasure these forever," Joe Woyjeck said of Christopher's photos. He especially enjoys looking at a series of photos of the hotshots trying to figure out how to create a human pyramid at the base of the world record alligator juniper they saved from the Doce wildfire on their namesake Granite Mountain.
"They're having a good time doing it and laughing," Joe said. "You can see how proud they are. My son's on top because he was the skinniest on the crew.
"It shows the kids in a great light. They were a team. They were bonding."
It was obviously a special tree, and it's even more special now, he said.
"For the families, it was a huge gift from Christopher," Mike said of the photos and videos. "Everyone was in at least one photo," including Christopher.
Mike also knows the uncle of fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot William Warneke, since they both worked for Cal Fire.
Chris, who would have turned 31 this month, worked on wildland fire crews throughout Southern California including the Apple Valley Helitack crew, Milk Creek Hotshots and a U.S. Bureau of Land Management engine crew, Mike said.
"That's all he wanted to do, was be a firefighter," Mike said of his son. "He was proud of what he did." He loved being outside and loved the physical exertion.
One of his former BLM captains, Aaron Lawson, recruited Chris to the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2011.
"He loved Prescott," Mike said. "He found his niche."
Brenda Chris' roommate was Brendan McDonough, the only Granite Mountain Hotshot to survive because he was acting as a lookout in a separate location.
"Brendan now has a special place in our family," Mike said.
Mike has a copy of the investigation into his son's death but he hasn't decided when, if ever, he will read it.
"There's not a living soul that saw what they saw and encountered what they encountered," Mike said. "I've been in the game and I would never, ever question the decisions made by that crew. And I don't think anybody can if they weren't with that crew.
"I look at it as a tragic accident."
Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter: @joannadodder.