How the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots reached millions
Through the televised memorial service, books and big screen dramatization, countless Americans discovered the story of 19 fallen firefighters
The fire service has faced countless tragedies over the past two centuries, including many modern-era conflagrations that caused significant death and destruction. But few such tragedies are known as far and wide as the Yarnell Hill Fire.
On June 30, 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona claimed the lives of 19 firefighters from the elite Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, a tight-knit team from the Prescott Fire Department. It was the greatest loss of life for the U.S. fire service since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The incident rocked the fire service, but it also gained considerable attention from the public and mainstream media, primarily due to the depth and complexity of the story: the volume of lives lost; the sole survivor; the last-known photos and video; the unknown decision-making in the final minutes; Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the memorial service; and the extensive investigation.
As we honor the memory of the 19 fallen hotshots, let’s look at how the story of the Yarnell Hill Fire has reached so many beyond the fire service.
Televised memorial service
Multiple memorial services were held for the fallen firefighters, including a public memorial service held in Prescott Valley on July 2. And on July 9, then-Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a memorial service in Prescott broadcast live by many media outlets. With thousands in attendance, including representatives from more than 100 hotshot crews from across the country, countless more watched online or on TV to share in remembrance.
Watch the full memorial service below:
For the readers
The Yarnell Hill Fire launched several books, including one authored by the incident’s sole survivor, Brendan McDonough, who had separated from the crew earlier in the day. McDonough’s 2017 book, “Granite Mountain: The Firsthand Account of a Tragic Wildfire, Its Lone Survivor, and the Firefighters Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice,” not only details the minute-by-minute account of the incident but also McDonough’s unique history of how he first found the hotshot crew in a time of need.
Fernanda Santos, the Phoenix bureau chief for The New York Times, penned the 2017 book “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.” The book draws upon more than 100 hours of interviews with the hotshots’ families as well as fire historians and state and federal officials. The book won the 2017 Spur Award for Best First Nonfiction Book, plus Spur Award Finalist for Best Western Contemporary Nonfiction
Kyle Dickman’s 2015 book “On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It” focuses on how wildfires ignite and spread and how they are fought. In an interview with NPR, Dickman discussed how the incident has – and hasn’t – changed wildland firefighting: “I think it's worth taking a bigger-picture perspective on what happened and asking ourselves, why did these men die, and what can we do in the future to prevent more wildland firefighter deaths? I think many of the agencies' answers to that is to invest more funding into technologies like better fire shelters, which are the last-ditch aluminum blankets that the men ultimately died under, and then also to equip some of the fighters with GPS devices, so they can be tracked. But what we're not seeing a lot of is much discussion of potential policy changes.”
On the big (and small) screen
It was another literary piece that ultimately led to perhaps the most wide-reaching access to the story of the fallen firefighters. Sean Flynn’s 2013 GQ article “No Exit” details the relationships among the hotshots while piecing together, as best as possible, what went wrong on that blistering summer day. “No Exit” served as the inspiration for the 2017 film “Only the Brave,” starring Josh Brolin as Eric Marsh, Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough, Jennifer Connelly as Amanda Marsh and Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink.
Additionally, Outside magazine released the documentary “The Granite Mountain Hotshots and the Yarnell Hill Fire” in August 2013. The magazine also produced the 7-minute video, “19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire,” in 2014.
Memorial State Park
Thousands continue to honor and remember the hotshots by visiting the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, which opened in 2016. The Park features a main trail that leads to an Observation Deck that overlooks the site where the firefighters perished. Nineteen steel gabion baskets encircle the Fatality Site area to protect and preserve the area for future visitors. Chains connect each gabion basket, a symbol of the connection and teamwork of the hotshots. A circular trail provides access around the baskets and the four memorial benches.
Lexipol Editorial Director Greg Friese visited the site in 2021 and shared his experience in “A hike to remember: Honoring the Granite Mountain Hotshots at memorial state park.” Friese encourages visitors to the site to bring a patch, pin or challenge coin: “Next to the observation deck armada, an awning with a few benches, is a Tribute Wall for visitors to leave behind a patch, T-shirt, pin or challenge coin as a gift in remembrance of the fallen. Arizona State Parks and Trails collects and preserves the items left at the site in a permanent collection.”
The newest addition to the Park is a bronze sculpture donated by the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, a gift to them from the Facebook Watch program “Returning the Favor,” starring Mike Rowe. As detailed on the state park website:
In January 2018, the crew from Returning the Favor contacted the WFGI under the premise of shooting a short documentary to highlight the work the group has done in support of the Wildland Firefighter community. Behind the scenes, the production group was planning to surprise the founders of the organization, Deborah Pfingston and Roxanne Preston, with a special show dedicated to repaying their efforts. The show included interviews with family and friends and culminated in a secret reveal of donated gifts for the organization and the bronze statue.
In advance of their visit, Gov. Doug Ducey, family, friends, firefighters, and Arizona State Parks & Trails staff had prepared for the special finale. Among the donations was $5,000 in equipment from STIHL Chainsaws as well as gloves, bandanas, "Be Better" wristbands, and the big reveal, a life-sized bronze statue of a Hotshot, courtesy of Returning the Favor and Big Statues.
Host Mike Rowe worked with the team to hide the statue from view with a large trailer until the final reveal. After presenting the women with the other gifts, he asked staff to help him with one last item by moving the trailer to reveal a temporary fiberglass replica of the statue that was created by Matt Glenn of Big Statues in Provo, Utah.
The full-scale replica statue was created over the course of two weeks in Utah and driven down by the artist on the day of the event, just in time for the reveal.
The donation of the statue to the park helps increase visibility and pays tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost their lives on June 30, 2013. By visiting the park, viewing the statue, hiking the trail, and viewing the gabion baskets at the Fatality Site memorial, you can honor the sacrifice of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots and the work of all Wildland Firefighters across the country.
We invite you to learn about the lives of these brave men and to pay your respects for their courage and sacrifice.”
Never Forget the 19
The story of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots is firmly rooted in history. We continue to honor the fallen firefighters:
- 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
Learn more about each firefighter at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park memorial site or CNN’s tribute to the fallen firefighters.