Remembering the Granite Mountain Hotshots 10 years later
19 men died in a fast-moving wildfire on June 30, 2013
YARNELL, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — In an instant, 19 lives were lost. On June 30, 2013, a fast-moving wildfire southwest of Prescott continued to grow exponentially.
That afternoon, thunderstorm activity caused the winds to shift, pushing the fire much faster and in a different direction. The unexpected shift to the south cut off the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ escape route, and they were overrun.
Only one member of the 20-man crew survived, having been separated from the team earlier in the day. It was the worst disaster for U.S. firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now 10 years later, their legacy lives on.
Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots Crew
First, what is a hotshot? Put simply, hotshots are teams of highly-trained firefighters who respond to remote and rugged regions around the country. In this case, the term “hotshot” originated in Southern California in the 1940s, referring to firefighters who battled the hottest part of forest wildfires. Today, hotshots are to fire departments what special forces are to branches of the military.
The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew (GMIHC), otherwise known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, was a group of wildland firefighters within the Prescott Fire Department. Originally founded as a fuels mitigation crew in 2001, the group eventually transitioned into a certified Interagency Hotshot Crew in 2008. Eric Marsh, who was hired by the City of Prescott in 2003, was said to be an instrumental part in forming the Granite Mountain Hotshots and eventually became superintendent of the 20-man crew.
The Yarnell Hill Fire
On the evening of Friday, June 28, 2013, lightning struck the Weaver Mountains west of Yarnell. The area had been plagued by drought for months with vegetation that hadn’t burned in over 40 years. The fire was very small at first, but those factors and weather conditions caused it to grow quickly beginning on the afternoon of June 29, expanding from 50 to 500 acres over the course of the night into Sunday. Strong winds continued to fuel the fire that would grow to consume thousands of acres. A 15-mile stretch of State Route 89 was also closed as the wildfire exploded in size.
Around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 30, the temperature was 100 degrees and thunderstorms were moving into the area. Wind gusts increased from 16 miles per hour to 22 miles per hour. Weather records show that over the next hour and a half, gusts increased to 44 mph. By 4:30 p.m., the storm changed the wildfire’s direction and speed, which was now heading south.
At 4:22 p.m., firefighters in the Yarnell area were forced to fall back as the wildfire reached the eastern edge of the canyon the Granite Mountain Hotshots were crossing. Radio traffic at 4:41 p.m. indicated the hotshots were in trouble. It would be the crew’s last communication.
An immeasurable loss
After contact with the Granite Mountain Hotshots was lost, a search by air began. At 6:35 p.m., medics in a DPS helicopter confirmed that all 19 men had died:
- Andrew Ashcraft, 29
- Robert Caldwell, 23
- Travis Carter, 31
- Dustin DeFord, 24
- Christopher MacKenzie, 30
- Eric Marsh, 43
- Grant McKee, 21
- Sean Misner, 26
- Scott Norris, 28
- Wade Parker, 22
- John Percin, Jr., 24
- Anthony Rose, 23
- Jesse Steed, 36
- Joe Thurston, 32
- Travis Turbyfill, 27
- William Warneke, 25
- Clayton Whitted, 28
- Kevin Woyjeck, 21
- Garret Zuppiger, 27
The lone survivor of the crew is Brenden McDonough, who was separated from the group earlier in the day to act as a fire lookout. Read more about each hotshot here.
By July 1, the Yarnell Hill Fire had grown to nearly 8,500 acres, leading to the evacuations of hundreds of people in Yarnell and Peeples Valley. The fire was fully contained after nearly two weeks on July 10. In addition to the 19 hotshots who had been killed, over 20 people were hurt and 130 buildings had been damaged or destroyed.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” said then-Gov. Jan Brewer.
Later that year, a 122-page Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Report was released with a timeline of events. Of note, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were out on the ridge on the southeast perimeter of the fire. Shortly after 4 p.m. on June 30, the team left the ridge and was moving through an unburned area toward a safety zone at Boulder Springs Ranch.
“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. The crew had less than two minutes to improve a shelter deployment site by using chain saws and burning out,” the report read. “The crew was deploying their fire shelters close together in a small area when the fire overtook them. Temperatures exceeded 2000°F, and the deployment site was not survivable.”
While there was a gap in communication and information over 30 minutes before the tragedy, the team responsible for the report “found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.”
A lasting legacy
In early 2014, Arizona House Bill 2684 was introduced, which would form the Yarnell Hill Memorial Site Board to purchase land with the intent to create the state’s first memorial park. After the bill was signed into law, Arizona State Parks and Trails bought 320 acres of land where the fire occurred, and on Nov. 30, 2016, the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park opened near SR 89. Learn more about the park here.
A nonprofit group has also formed since the tragedy, and the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew Learning and Tribute Center opened in 2019. The center’s mission is to tell the story of the fallen hotshots and to educate visitors about wildland fires. It’s located inside the Prescott Gateway Mall at 3250 Gateway Blvd. in Prescott and is open Friday through Sunday each week.
McDonough is now CEO of Holdfast Recovery, a faith-based post-traumatic and substance addiction rehabilitation program. He’s also a motivational speaker who gives presentations at events for veterans and first responders.
The Granite Mountain 10-year anniversary public memorial is set for Friday, June 30 at 3 p.m. at the Yavapai County Courthouse, located at 120 S. Cortez St. in Prescott. Speakers include Gov. Katie Hobbs, Prescott Mayor Phil Goode and Ryder Ashcraft, son of fallen hotshot Andrew Ashcraft. Surviving member McDonough will read the Hotshot Prayer. The event, expected to last about 90 minutes, will also include a missing man formation flyover by airmen stationed at Luke Air Force Base.
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