Rim Country firefighters on Monday rushed to the front lines of the Yarnell Hill Fire to take the place of crews yanked from the front lines after the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters this weekend.
The Payson, Hellsgate, Globe and Christopher-Kohl’s fire departments all sent emergency relief for the exhausted and distraught Prescott crews after the Yavapai County incident management team handling the Yarnell Hill Fire pulled all crews off the fire because of the deaths.
Swirling winds and roaring flames driving the 9,172-acre fire first trapped the 19-man Prescott Hotshot crew then swept over them, causing the greatest loss in the state’s history — and the greatest loss of wildland firefighters nationally in 80 years. Sparked by lightning, the fire grew from four acres to 6,000 acres in a day and consumed at least 50 buildings in Yarnell. The Prescott crew had time to deploy their fire shelters, but the flames proved too intense. Details as to how the veteran crew become cut off and killed remain unclear.
The Payson Fire Department received a request for immediate wildland fire resources from the management team. Payson sent three men and a four-wheel drive wildland truck capable of carrying 300 gallons of water and traveling the narrow Forest Service roads. More resources could not be spared since the Rim Country remains under extreme fire conditions and on high alert itself.
Meanwhile, tinder dry conditions complicated by pre-monsoon storms with lots of lightning and precious little rain left the whole state on high alert, and resulted in two new wildfires on Monday — on near Kingman and the other near Superior.
Some 400 firefighters continue to battle the Yarnell Hill Fire, which on Monday was still completely uncontained.
In New Mexico, meanwhile, the 133,000-acre Silver Fire and several others continue to burn. In Colorado, the 100,000-acre West Fork Complex Fire continues to grow, the latest blaze is the worst fire in that state’s history.
Since last week, extra support from out of state has been stationed in the Rim Country. For example, on Friday, June 28, Hotshots from Utah were stationed all day at the Payson airport.
On Monday, a Payson firefighter on the road to Prescott said firefighters only had an hour to grab their stuff and go.
“It is a crisis situation,” the firefighter, who asked the Roundup not identify him. The firefighter had just completed almost 18 hours on duty fighting a fire in Rye.
He said the Payson crew could remain at the Yarnell Hill Fire for up to 14 days.
Already on Facebook, friends of the Payson Fire Department, such as Monica Rae Boyd Williams prayed for their return, “Prayers are with them. God, please bring them home safely.”
Asking for help from other areas is the general response to this type of emergency, said Russ Russell, a retired California wildland firefighter who teaches fire science at Gila Community College.
“Typically what they will do is get together with other districts to man their stations while they take everyone off duty to do an incident stress debriefing,” said Russell.
Russell worked 40 years for the California Department of Forestry as a wildland firefighter. After he retired eight years ago, he came to Payson to live a quiet life. Instead, he found he missed the action and now volunteers for the Houston-Mesa Fire Department, while teaching fire science classes at the college.
Russell said to lose a wildland firefighter due to heat exhaustion or falling off a cliff is not out of the ordinary, but losing 19 is exceptional.
Arizona Fires (wildlandfire.az.gov for July 2):
Haystack Fire (Tonto Forest 23 miles northeast of Globe, 15 acres)
Arnette Fire (Tonto National Forest, 50 acres)
Yarnell Hill Fire (Yavapai County, 9,172 acres)
Dean Peak Fire (Kingman, 2,350 acres)
Prison Fire (Coronado National Forest, 100 acres)
W 2 Fire (Coronado National Forest, 530 acres)
Doce Fire (Prescott National Forest, 6,767 acres)
“I actually use (stories) of these fatalities in my lessons … to teach what not to do,” he said, “but, when you’re talking about experienced firefighters … (the Granite Mountain Hotshots) were known as a good crew … for that many people to die at once, that is unusual.”
Russell said he believes the erratic monsoon winds could have contributed to the deaths of the Granite Mountain crew, but cautioned that nothing will be definitive until officials complete a full investigation.
“My gut feeling is, wind is one of the major factors,” he said. “With monsoon downdrafts ... and micro bursts, you don’t know what the wind is going to do.”
Similarly unusual conditions caused the death of six firefighters battling the Dude Fire almost exactly 23 years ago off the Control Road near Whispering Pines. In that case, a pillar of smoke and fire caused by the intensely burning wildfire collapsed, sending 100-foot-long blasts of flame washing over a fire crew huddled in their shelters. For a recounting of that tragedy, see page 8B in today’s Roundup.
Fire officials reporting on the deaths in the Yarnell Hill Fire agree that shifting winds contributed to the deaths. Russell said fighting a wildfire is like subduing a wild animal — you never know how it will react.
Officials said the early monsoon weather started the fire. Before the rains, thunderheads emit lightning strikes, but no rain. Those same deadly conditions will likely continue in Rim Country for at least the next week, despite traces of rain in Payson and significant rain up on the Rim this weekend.
Russell said he was sad to hear that despite some of the crew deploying their fire shelters, the flames overwhelmed them.
“The flames must have been intense,” he said.
Fire safety officials say that fire shelters can withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees, but at that heat the aluminum-coated layers begin to come apart. At 1,200 degrees, the aluminum starts to melt. Most wildfires burn at 1,600 degrees and can get up to 2,192 degrees.
Russell said the brush fueling the Yarnell Hill Fire includes manzanita and mesquite bushes that could contribute to making the fire hotter.
Names of the dead
The City of Prescott has released the names of the 19 victims in the Yarnell Hill Fire. All were members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots. Those who lost their lives are:
• 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, 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
“I drove through there once,” he said, “it’s more bushy like California with mesquite and manzanita, which excrete an oil that makes a fire hotter and faster. We called them flash-heat fuels.”
In addition to the fuels, the area is rugged and steep.
Local Payson resident and school board member Devin Wala knows that. He used to ride his bike through that area.
On his Facebook page he wrote, “When we lived down in Phoenix I used to do an annual bike ride from Wickenburg to Prescott. The ride went up two major climbs the first and most challenging was Yarnell Hill, 4.5 steep miles up to the top where the town of Yarnell was situated. It is varied and rough terrain. Like most of our area of northern (central) Arizona it would be a difficult place to fight a fire.”
Russell agrees it is a difficult place to fight a fire. One of his California wildland firefighting friends lost a son in the Yarnell Hill Fire.
“I heard about it through personal e-mails,” he said.
Russell also lost a friend in a fire in Beaumont, Calif.
Yet, Russell said that despite the dangers of the job, he loved being a wildland firefighter.
“I like being outside,” he said, “and every day was different. You’re going all the time — flying in helicopters and riding around in bulldozers. It’s adventurous.”
However, he does not look forward to talking about the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy in his classes.
“I will hate to use this in my classes, I’ll have to wait a few years — there will be lots of bad memories,” Russell said. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”