Published July 03, 2013
The lone survivor from the elite 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew that suffered 19 deaths as members sought shelter from the fierce flames of wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., was identified as the crew’s lookout and was away from the others at the time when winds changed the fire's direction.
Brendan McDonough, 21, was assigned to give a "heads-up on the hillside" Sunday for the team. He notified the crew of the changing conditions before leaving his post, said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman who relayed McDonough's story at an afternoon news conference at local high school.
"He did exactly what he was supposed to," Ward said of McDonough, who was in his third season with the unit. Ward did not address how the 19 others responded after McDonough's warning or how much time they had to act.
Ward said a lookout searches for trigger points and decides whether to move to a different location. He said McDonough radioed the crew that he reached the trigger point and was headed to safety. He asked them to contact him if they needed anything, Ward said. The fire continued to spread and he was taken to a safety zone.
Ward said McDonough acted by the book. He even alerted the crew to the sudden change in wind direction, Ward said.
“I can tell you that Brendan has no desire to speak to anybody at this point,” Ward said. “He is trying to deal with the same things that we are all trying to deal with but you can understand that that is compounded by being on the scene I ask you please respect him and his privacy.”
Official standards say fire crews battling a wildfire should identify escape routes and safe zones and that crews should pay attention to weather forecasts and post lookouts. McDonough on Sunday was assigned to provide situational awareness to the crew throughout the day.
The U.S. Forest Service adopted the guidelines after 14 firefighters died in 1994 on Colorado's Storm King Mountain. Investigators uncovered numerous errors in how that blaze was fought.
"The reforms after Storm King were collectively intended to prevent that from happening again, which was mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew," said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado.
In the Storm King tragedy, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging, creating 100-foot tongues of flame. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.
"There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting," he said.
The Hotshot team from Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chain saws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel.
But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.
Weather reports from around the time of the firefighter deaths show how volatile the wind became. At 4 p.m., the wind was blowing out of the southwest, but one hour later, it had switched to the exact opposite direction and dramatically increased in speed. It was gusting at 22 mph at 4 p.m. but was at 41 mph by 5 p.m.
"What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back and trapped them," said Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo.
Retired smoke jumper Art Morrison, a spokesman for the Arizona State Forestry Division, said it's essentially a judgment call in picking a safe haven to escape to if the flames suddenly blow toward crews and they have to flee for their lives.
"Whatever they used as a safety zone just didn't work," he said of the Prescott team.
Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said it's too early to say if the crew or those managing the fire made mistakes.
"This just might have been a weather anomaly that nobody saw coming that happened too quickly to respond to," Mangan said.
He said the crew members might have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.
"When you've got especially structures and residences involved, and you've got local resources, there's a fair amount of social and political pressure, some of it self-generated by the firefighters, who want to do a good job," Mangan said. "They don't want to see a community burn down. They want to get in there."
A team of nationwide fire officials drawn by Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, arrived in the area Tuesday to find out exactly what went wrong.
They plan to make their way into the charred fire scene and issue a preliminary report in the coming days, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.
With the investigation just beginning, it's not clear what help water- or retardant-dropping aircraft could have provided for the doomed crew.
One contractor, Neptune Aviation Services, had three aerial tankers making drops on the fire earlier in the day. But at the time the firefighters died, the planes had been grounded because of treacherous conditions, said chief executive Ronald Hooper.
"It wasn't safe for them to be in the air at that time," Hooper said. There were "severe winds, erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area."
However, government dispatch logs show at least two other planes were flying over the fire at the time, one large tanker and one small one. There was also at least one firefighting helicopter in the air early Sunday afternoon.
On Tuesday, about 500 firefighters were battling the mountain blaze, which had burned about 13 square miles. Yavapai County authorities said about 200 homes and other structures were destroyed in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. Hundreds were evacuated.
So far, no part of the fire had been contained.
Fire Cmdr. Clay Templin said the wildfire was "still burning very hot" even though there were not a lot of active flames. Complicating efforts were the "exceptionally" dry conditions from drought.
"Whether it's brown or green, everything burns right now," Templin said of foliage.
He urged residents to heed evacuation orders, saying "in these extraordinary conditions, we don't want to have another tragedy in Arizona."
Fox News' Edmund DeMarche and the Associated Press contributed to this report