Granite Mountain Hotshots: The firefighting team that died battling the Yarnell Hill Fire
Detailing how tragedy unfolded and how the community has honored the fallen firefighters
Seminal incidents can break or transform a community – even an entire industry.
The Yarnell Hill Fire that erupted through the mountain community of Yarnell, Arizona, claimed the lives of 19 firefighters in 2013, the greatest loss of life for U.S. fire service since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The fire forever changed the physical landscape of the area, but also solidified the resilience of area residents and the wildland firefighting community. Fire service leaders, plus family and community members, shared their grief. The magnitude of the loss prompted countless discussions and questions about whether this tragedy could have been prevented – how, by whom?
The incident forced vital discussions about wildland firefighting strategies and tactics, ultimately resulting in a comprehensive investigation report. In the end, the wildland firefighting community continues to prioritize firefighter safety but has seen moderate, not sweeping, changes in operations.
In order to fully grasp the impact of the Yarnell Hill Fire and the devastation of the loss of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, let us start at the beginning – who they were, how this tragedy unfolded and how the community has honored the fallen.
About the Granite Mountain Hotshots
The Granite Mountain Hotshots, also known as the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew, was a tight-knit team of wildland firefighters within the Prescott (Arizona) Fire Department.
The crew was originally started in 2002 as a fuels mitigation crew, but transitioned to a hand crew (Type 2 I/A) in 2004, and ultimately to a hotshot crew in 2008. (Note: A hotshot crew is a nationally available, intensively trained 20-person hand crew focused primarily on handline construction.) Prescott Fire Department Station 7 housed the crew’s equipment and two 10-person crew carriers.
On June 30, 2013, 19 of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed during the Yarnell Hill Fire. Brendan McDonough, who had separated from the crew earlier in the day, survived the incident.
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.
Yarnell Hill Fire
Lightning ignited the Yarnell Hill Fire high on a ridge west of Yarnell, Arizona, on June 28, 2013. The fire fell under the jurisdiction of the Arizona State Forestry Division.
According to the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation report, the Yarnell Hill area had not experienced wildfire in over 45 years. It was primed to burn because of extreme drought, decadent chaparral and above-average cured grass loadings.
On June 29, winds increased and the fire spotted outside containment lines. That evening, the Type 4 incident commander ordered a Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT) and additional resources for the following morning. The fire grew overnight to approximately 300 to 500 acres.
Members of the Type 2 IMT began arriving early on June 30. The incoming Granite Mountain Hotshot superintendent accepted the role of Division Alpha supervisor, and the Type 2 IMT assumed command.
According to the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation report, “For most of the day, the fire spread to the northeast, threatening structures in Model Creek and Peeples Valley. Around 1550, the wind shifted and the fire started pushing aggressively to the southeast, toward Yarnell. Fire resources shifted to resident evacuation and structure protection in town. Only the Granite Mountain IHC remained out on the ridge, on the southwest perimeter of the fire. Personnel who communicated with the Granite Mountain IHC knew the crew was in the black at that time and assumed they would stay there. No one realized that the crew left the black and headed southeast, sometime after 1604. At 1630, thunderstorm outflows reached the southern perimeter of the fire. Winds increased substantially; the fire turned south and overran the Granite Mountain IHC at about 1642.”
The report explains that there is a gap of over 30 minutes in the information available for the Granite Mountain IHC. The investigation team was unable to verify communications from the crew from 1604 until 1637 and, therefore, “there is much that cannot be known about the crew’s decisions and actions prior to their entrapment and fire shelter deployment at around 1642.”
The summary continues: “It is known that the Granite Mountain IHC left the black sometime after 1604 and traveled through an unburned area toward a safety zone at the Boulder Springs Ranch. Thunderstorm outflows changed the intensity and direction of fire spread, and the rapidly advancing fire eliminated the crew’s options of reaching the safety zone or returning to the canyon rim. They had less than two minutes to improve a deployment site. They were deploying fire shelters when the fire overtook them. Temperatures exceeded 2,000 degrees F, and the deployment site was not survivable. The 19 crewmembers were found approximately one mile south-southeast of their last known location, approximately 600 yards west of the Ranch.”
The Yarnell Hill was the largest wildland firefighter loss of life since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in California in which 29 firefighters were killed, surpassing even the line-of-duty deaths at Colorado’s South Canyon Fire in 1994 and Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire in 1949.
Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation
The State of Arizona convened an accident investigation team on July 3, 2013, to review the conditions and events leading to the circumstances of the entrapment and deaths of 19 members of Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.
The investigation team was led by Jim Karels, the state forester for the Florida Forest Service. According to the Arizona State Forestry Division, the team visited the site of the accident, reviewed audio and video files, interviewed individuals associated with the incident, reviewed fire weather and behavior data, and examined available records and physical evidence.
The Arizona State Forestry Division released the Serious Accident Investigation report of the Yarnell Hill Fire fatalities on Sept. 28, 2013. The 116-page report offers the team’s analysis, conclusions and recommendations. It also includes a discussion section that is meant to facilitate understanding and learning by exploring various perspectives and issues that arose during the investigation.
A key finding in the report: “Although much communication occurred among crews throughout the day, few people understood Granite Mountain’s intentions, movements, and location, once they left the black. The Team believes this is due to brief, informal, and vague radio transmissions and talkarounds that can occur during wildland fire communications. Based on radio conversations, Operations and other resources had concluded the Granite Mountain IHC was located in the black, near the ridge top where they had started that morning. This resulted in confusion about the crew’s actual location at the time of search and rescue.”
The report concludes: “The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.”
Watch the Yarnell Hill Fire Serious Accident Investigation Briefing:
Multiple memorial services were held for the fallen firefighters, including private services for individual members.
A public memorial service was held in Prescott Valley on July 2, 2013. And on July 9, then-Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a memorial service in Prescott. Thousands attended both memorial services, including representatives from more than 100 hotshot crews from across the country.
Watch the full memorial service below:
Further, the community of Yarnell honors the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots every year on June 30.
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park was dedicated in 2016 as a place to remember the 19 fallen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The State Park website details the formation of the Park. On June 30, 2015 – 2 years after the deaths of the hotshots – Arizona State Parks purchased the 320-acre plot of land that was the site of the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. The park was officially named "Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park" – Arizona's first memorial state park.
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.
The park opened to the public on Nov. 30, 2016.
The Park website reads: “We invite you to hike the trail to better understand the experience of these men as well as to appreciate the beauty of the town of Yarnell and the surrounding areas. Hike the Hotshots Trail from the parking lot trailhead up to the overlook where you'll see sweeping views in every direction, and perhaps leave a memento on our remembrance wall. Or continue your hike down the Memorial Trail, where you can pay your respects at the site where the Hotshots were recovered. The hike is approximately 3.5 miles long from the trailhead to the Fatality Site, for a full length of about 7 miles.”
The newest addition to the Park is a bronze sculpture donated by the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute. Learn more about the Granite Mountain Hotshots statue.
Watch the dedication of the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park:
Additionally, the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Learning and Tribute Center opened in 2018. The center is described on its site as a “one-of-a kind wildland fire learning center that honors the legacy of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew by educating, inspiring, and motivating visitors to adopt behaviors that prevent wildland fires, resulting in fewer fire-related fatalities.”
The impact of the Yarnell Hill Fire
Much has been discussed and debated about the movements of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30, 2013. The fact that there is such a large lapse of communication has led fire service to opine about their decision-making and whether the tragedy could have been prevented. While we will never know exactly how the tragedy unfolded, there is still room to discuss lessons learned and consider tactics that could prevent similar burnovers.
In June 2014, approaching the first anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire, The Republic asked, “Has Yarnell Hill Fire changed way crews fight fires?” The story shared the words of a veteran fire captain who acknowledged that no procedures or logistics had changed. Firefighting has always been a dangerous job, with risk-benefit decisions.
"Sometimes, those risks all add up," the captain said. "Sometimes, all of those factors come together at once, and that's what happened at Yarnell. We didn't really learn anything new. We knew all these basics. But maybe our attitude as firefighters is going to be safer."
A year later, in an interview with NPR, Kyle Dickman, author of “On the Burning Edge,” 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.”
Specific to the issue of wildland fire shelter improvements, a National Wildfire Coordinating Group subcommittee charged with the effort determined in 2019 that the current design is the right combination of practical protection in a reasonably management form-factor, according to an interview with the subcommittee chair, Ted Mason, on an interview with Montana Public Radio.
“Yes, we can build a fire shelter that would protect us from any fire, but you’re gonna have to hire somebody specifically to follow each firefighter around to carry it,” Mason said.
Mason added that federal officials intended to replace the current fire shelter design following the Yarnell Hill tragedy; however, in that case, with temperatures exceeding 2,200 degrees F with extreme turbulent air conditions, no fire shelter could have protected that crew.
Granite Mountain Hotshots in the media
Fernanda Santos, who covers Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix bureau chief for The New York Times, penned the 2017 book “The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.”
Kyle Dickman wrote “On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It,” in 2015.
The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is depicted in 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. The film is based on Sean Flynn’s 2013 GQ article “No Exit.”
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.