Journalists first on the Yarnell Hill Fire scene think back on the tragedy

Two journalists with 3TV look back on getting to the Yarnell Hill Fire and hearing on the radio the Granite Mountain Hotshots were lost.
Published: Jun. 30, 2023 at 8:22 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Award-winning journalists Jim Fry, a veteran photographer of more than 40 years, and Jason Volentine, a journalist with more than a decade of reporting under his belt, were the first ones on the scene in the town of Yarnell on June 30, 2013. The assignment would become one of the biggest and most frightening either had ever covered.

“June 30, 2013. What still sticks in your mind to this day?” asked Yetta Gibson. “The evacuations and the 200-foot-high flames that were just off in the distance,” said Fry. “The winds. The winds were howling. We were basically camped. Our life truck was in an area where you immediately got into Yarnell, and it was like the only spot where you could get a microwave live shot out. It’s literally the first wide spot on (state Route) 89A, which is where we were. Looking back on it, we were in the safe zone, but at the time, we didn’t know that.”

“I just remember, you know, they sent me up there to basically fill some time that was supposed to be, you know, a nice drive up in the mountains, a cool day,” said Volentine. “The fire was gonna be out soon. And the thing that will always stick in my mind is the moment the fire turned. I was out talking to the townspeople. It was nice and cool outside, which, you know, for June, was a relief. Jim had gone into the live truck to edit something for the next show. It went from just this nice, calm, cool day to all of a sudden just these hellacious winds hitting me in the face. You could feel the heat change in the fire. I had just moved to the Valley; it was the first wildfire that I was covering. I didn’t even know if I should be scared. So, I go into the live truck, and I say, ‘Hey Jim,’ knowing his experience, ‘can you pop your head out here and have a look?’”

The pair then described what happened next. “This is how odd it was. The front of the truck is facing towards where the fires were coming,” Fry said. “My back is getting warm. I’m not making this up. My back was getting warm. I immediately associate it with the engine. What’s going on? Live truck on fire? I looked in this direction, nothing’s going on. I come out of the truck, and I’m pelted with winds of 50-60 miles an hour, and it was raining dirt. Literally, mud was coming down as rain.”

At that moment, Fry and Volentine were witnessing, with their own eyes, the beginning of what became one of the most tragic and deadliest fires to hit this town and the state of Arizona. “The reason why we have video of the event is because the mast was torqued so much it wouldn’t come down. We couldn’t leave. But that gave us enough time to videotape the fire blowing through Yarnell.”

The area was still very hot. “Oh, yeah, it was, yeah. It was. The winds had died down a bit, but there was still gusting, and I just, didn’t, just literally throw everything my truck had, got out of there,” said Volentine.

They continued to work for about 10 minutes. “Which we shouldn’t have. We should have abandoned the truck. I mean, yes, on a good day that mast takes how long to come down? Two minutes? Four minutes? Yeah, it took much longer, [but] we should have abandoned the truck. We had another vehicle there with us. We honestly probably should have gone,” Volentine recalled.

So, there they were, two journalists, in the middle of a town in chaos and a literal inferno. They were very close to where the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were lost in an instant. “Were you there when crews got that awful phone call about the hotshots?” asked Gibson. “So, yeah, this is interesting,” replied Fry. “So, we came down from the hill. There’s a little spot on the road, just a little turnoff, nothing more than that. Just a little bit aways down from the hill, and there was a patrol officer. Things had calmed down a bit, andI walked over to talk to the patrol officer, and his radio was on the emergency channel. As we were talking, it came through that there were, 19, 20 firefighters that they couldn’t get a hold of,” Volentine said. “I heard it on the radio. I heard the first time the call went out, and obviously yeah, 19 of them died. The one was the lookout who survived.”

And then thought then, what?” asked Gibson. “I mean, you know, you think the worst. You can’t get a hold of 20 firefighters,” Volentine replied. He was still holding onto hope. “I’m like hopefully it’s because, their bags, the shelters that they get into, which they were, and they just didn’t come out of them,” Volentine said.

It was a lot to take in. “It’s one of those things where you just don’t grasp it, and to be really honest with you, I don’t want to sound callous but, it just wasn’t there. I was so focused on getting this story out. It wasn’t until I went back. It was the people I talked to just the stories that came out of there which I mean I couldn’t believe ‘em,” said Fry.

It took a bit for the news of the hotshot deaths to hit Volentine. “The adrenaline started to wear off on the drive home. And, you know, I was always, I think, more of like a human-interest journalist. I was always more interested in that kind of angle of things. And I couldn’t bring myself to do any of that. I couldn’t talk to those people. I couldn’t go back and do those stories. I don’t know why. I’m a little emotional; it just felt too close. Journalists aren’t supposed to be part of the story, and we almost ended up a very real part of that story,” he said.

Both Fry and Volentine have revisited Yarnell from time to time over the past 10 years. “Is there anything you do when you go there for the folks who went through this? You know, is there anything you do, personally?” asked Gibson. “Just a silent prayer. The monument is there. I don’t, I don’t need a monument; I remember them all,” Fry said.

The two journalists have a simple message for the victims’ families and for those who stayed in Yarnell. “[I’m] sorry it happened. There are people outside of your community who are thinking about it 10 years later. You know, it’s still something that I know I think about I think probably anybody who is close to it as a journalist is still thinking about it. And you know, I go other places in the country. People outside of Arizona know about it, so people are thinking about you, and they love you, and all the victims’ families all these years later, no one’s forgotten about you,” Volentine said.

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