What started as a fairly ordinary wildfire quickly morphed into a giant blaze that engulfed a crew of 19 elite firefighters who might have been too close to escape in time.
An investigation is ongoing into the deaths of the “hotshot” crew who battled the Yarnell Hills fire, but some details have come out about what happened on Sunday when the blaze grew large and out-of-control.
The wildfire likely started with a lightning strike on Friday. In the southwest, monsoon season brings thunderstorms, with lightning, gusty winds, and dust storms, yet often no rain.
Around lunchtime on Sunday, one of the firefighters texted a picture to his wife along with the message “This is my lunch spot … too bad lunch was an MRE [meal ready to eat].” The photo shows the firefighters on a hill with smoke billowing below.
Later that day, 21-year-old Brendan McDonough, who was acting as a lookout for the team, alerted them to the rapidly changing weather and wind patterns. He evacuated from the area and survived, but the rest of the crew was too close to get out in time.
In a matter of hours, the fire grew from 200 acres to 2,000. Wind was coming from the southwest at about 4 p.m. but changed direction quickly after that. Wind gusts had increased from 22 miles per hour to 41 miles per hour by 5 p.m.
The wind picking up and changing direction is likely what trapped the firefighters. By 4:30 p.m., they had lost radio contact with fire managers. As a last resort, some of the firefighters deployed emergency shelters that can protect from extreme heat when a fire gets too close but can be burned away by direct flame.
Before they died, the firefighters were working to “cut a line” at the front of the fire, which is the most dangerous place to be, officials told the Los Angeles Times. This tactic involves clearing out brush that serves as fuel to the fire.
Firefighters battling wildfires are supposed to establish “safe zones” that they can flee to if a fire unexpectedly changes directions or grows too large. It’s not clear what happened in this case, but an inquiry might shed some light on that.
In any case, Tom Harbour, national director for fire and aviation management at the Forest Service, told the LA Times that the investigation isn’t about assigning blame.
“‘Investigation’ connotes a sense of looking for wrong,” he said. “There is no wrong to be found here. When one firefighter dies, we all feel the pain. The only reason we take a look at these accidents is to try to find out how we might go another 80 years — hell, I hope we go another 100 years — before we might have another of these tragedies.”
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