From lunch on a ridge to disaster: How just another day on the line turned tragic for Hotshots

Published July 06, 2013

| Associated Press

Juliann Ashcraft had just put the kids down for a nap when her cellphone buzzed. It was a text from Andrew, her husband of seven years and, still, her best friend.

"This is my lunch spot," he wrote beneath a photo of hard-hatted firefighters sitting on boulders, watching smoke rise on the horizon. "too bad lunch was an MRE," the text concluded.

It was 2:16 p.m. on June 30.

That Sunday morning, Ashcraft and the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had been deployed to the ranching community of Yarnell to fight yet another wildfire. The crew had barely gotten home from a different blaze when word came that the team was needed again.

"I think I will be down there for a while on this one," 29-year-old Ashcraft had told his wife via text.

The father of four always seized every opportunity to call or text Juliann while out on a job — even if it meant hiking to the top of a mountain to get a signal. Still, during the summer wildfire season, it was not unusual for the couple to go weeks on end without any communication. This day, so far, had been different.

That afternoon Juliann texted to report that it was raining at their house in nearby Prescott. She told her husband how much she wished he could be there, watching the drops fall with her and the kids.

"We could really use some rain over here," he replied.

With that, their exchanges stopped. Thanks to the photo, Juliann could at least picture where Andrew was. But while it offered some comfort, the image was also foreboding.

Off in the distance, from behind a ridge line, billowed a sickly, blackish-brown plume — spreading like a bruise across the graying sky.

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The blaze had ignited two days earlier with a lightning strike along the Date Creek Mountains above Yarnell. Once known as "Rich Hill" for the acres of gold nuggets discovered by prospectors in the 1860s, the town lies 80 miles northwest of Phoenix at 4,800 feet above sea level, leading to the motto, "Where a Desert Breeze Meets the Mountain Air."

The slopes that surround the community are laden with manzanita, evergreen, mountain mahogany and oak. Though next-door to national forestland that regularly sees fire activity, this particular area had not burned in some 40 years and was deep into a drought — making it far more susceptible to fire.

Still, at first, officials determined this blaze to be small, posing no immediate threat to Yarnell's 700 residents.

Around 10 a.m. Saturday, the Arizona State Forestry Division called in a pair of air tankers, a helicopter, some fire engines and a couple of hand crews. By nightfall, the fire was just 15 acres in size, though the town fire department warned residents: "Be on high alert if the wind changes direction."

Overnight the blaze grew to 200 acres, and by Sunday morning officials were transitioning to a larger command team to oversee firefighting efforts and calling in more personnel.

Around 6 a.m., Darrell Willis, chief of the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Fire Division, was loading his truck with containers of eggs, sausage, potatoes and fruit for the crews when his phone rang. It was Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who were based out of Willis' department.

"Hey, chief," Marsh said. "We're coming down to the fire."

At 43, the North Carolina native was the oldest member of the Hotshot team and its founder. Within six years of its beginning as a fuels mitigation unit in 2002, the Granite Mountain group had joined the elite Hotshot community — the first such crew attached to a municipal department.

Marsh and Willis had worked together for years, and were close friends as well as colleagues.

Willis gave Marsh the rundown: Active fire. Lots of homes potentially at risk.

"It's one of those days," he warned.

Then Willis ended the conversation the way he does anytime he's speaking to a firefighter.

"Be safe," he told Marsh.

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By 9:30 a.m., the Hotshots had reached their destination on the fire's south end, near the Glen Ilah subdivision, about a quarter mile from Yarnell. The area had already been bulldozed, so the crew used chain saws, axes and other gear to build a line between the blaze and the town in case the winds changed and blew flames their way. Following standard procedure, they also mapped out an escape route.

Most of the fire activity had been restricted to the north end of the blaze. But in rugged, hilly terrain like that where the Hotshots were working, any thunder activity or downdrafts can cause winds to shift and flames to shoot in all directions, fire experts say.

In part, for that very reason, each crew always has at least one member serving as a lookout, stationed where he can watch the fire's behavior and radio changes in conditions to the team.

That Sunday, Granite Mountain Hotshot Brendan McDonough was the eyes for the other 19 — assigned to a nearby hillside to provide reports to the crew and keep watch on "trigger points," locations that when reached or crossed by a fire dictate a move to safer ground.

As the Hotshots attacked the blaze from the ground and aircraft dropped retardant from above, Yarnell school board member Eric Lawton was returning home from a trip. At 2 p.m., he saw fire close to the elementary school and to a few homes, but Lawton still believed Yarnell to be safe. At the time, a weather station 6 miles away showed winds coming from the southwest at 10 mph.

Lawton even joked with some new residents watching the flames from their front yards. "Welcome to Yarnell," he hollered facetiously.

Soon, Lawton's casual mood turned dark when a neighbor reported that town evacuations were underway. A thunderstorm was brewing, and the winds had shifted nearly 180 degrees — sending flames racing into Yarnell, where Lawton's small, block home sat at the base of a hill.

"It was brown, then it was black, it then turned red and the flames topped the hill," Lawton would later recall. "And I knew I had to get out."

It was approaching 5 p.m., and the winds were now coming from the north at 26 mph, with gusts to 43 mph.

From his lookout post, McDonough saw the shift in winds and the fire suddenly coming toward him. He radioed down to his crewmates, telling them his trigger point had been reached, and that he was heading for safe ground.

As a Prescott fire official would later recount, McDonough told his team to contact him on the radio if they needed anything. Then he rode away with a firefighter from another Hotshot team. When last he looked, McDonough's lookout position had already burned over in the flames.

At 4:47 p.m., Eric Marsh did radio to fire commanders, and his message was utterly terrifying. The 19 remaining Hotshots were deploying their emergency fire shelters — lightweight cocoons made of reflective material intended as a firefighter's last resort.

Willis, the Prescott wildland fire chief, was in his pickup outside Yarnell, listening to the Hotshots' tactical frequency, when he heard a garbled message from Marsh that he couldn't quite make out. Then his cellphone rang.

"Did you hear that?" a supervisor asked him. All Willis could think was, "Not those guys." His guys.

Then he began to pray.

Over and over again, the radio crackled with a constant, heartbreaking summons:

"Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?"

Maybe, thought Willis, they're just out of radio contact. Maybe, he hoped, his friends would walk out of that smoke at any minute.

Helicopters circled the area in an attempt to douse the flames. But the smoke was so thick crews could only guess at where to drop their loads.

As time wore on, Willis got back on the phone. He called his wife first, and then the head of the Prescott Fire Department.

He asked them to start praying, too.

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Back in Prescott, Juliann Ashcraft was watching television with her children — Ryder, 6; Shiloh, 4; Tate Andrew, 2; and Choice, 1.

Andrew Ashcraft was only in his third season with the Hotshots, but he'd been working toward the job for years. As a teenager, he attended fire camps. In high school, he'd spend hours after classes studying fire science.

While his love affair with firefighting predated his romance with Juliann, there was no question which passion burned hotter. The couple was still playful. When one would step outside the house for something, the other would lock the door and not open it until the exiled party performed a dance in front of the living room window.

When Andrew was home, he was the center of the family. He insisted on tucking the children in each night and leading them in their prayers. And when he was away, Juliann did her best to keep up their routines — including their daily family ritual of taking turns talking about their happiest moment of the day, and their saddest.

It was about 7 p.m. when a television announcer came on with the report: A Hotshot crew had been overrun near Yarnell. Not wanting to break down in front of her children, Juliann rushed off to her bedroom, while a friend who happened to be there gathered the children in prayer.

A couple of miles away, Colleen Turbyfill was scanning Facebook when a news alert popped up about a Hotshot crew. Her stepson, Travis, was a member of the Granite Mountain team.

He'd been just 4 years old when he literally burst into her life. She was eating pizza with friends when the boy rushed up to her and asked if she could sew a button back on his shirt.

In 1990, she married Travis' father and adopted the precocious little boy who, even then, knew what he wanted to be one day. When Travis was in kindergarten, he drew a picture of a fire truck and titled it, "When I grow up."

"I want to be a fire man," he wrote. "I will fire fight the fires."

Strangely, he did not draw the typical red hook-and-ladder truck, but rather a pale green vehicle that closely resembles the type the Granite Mountain crew used.

Colleen had last seen Travis just days before, when he returned from working another blaze. That fire had threatened her own parents' home nearby. For the first time, the danger seemed too close.

"I know that you love it," she told him. "But I hate it now."

He had been saying all season that this would be his last as a Hotshot. Still dressed in his fire gear and reeking of smoke, he had wrapped Colleen in a bear hug and told her not to worry.

"We've got a great crew," the 27-year-old father of two young girls said. "I love what I do, and we're going to be OK."

Now she wondered if that were true. At 7:25 p.m., Colleen grabbed her phone and texted Travis' wife, Stephanie.

"Do you know where Travis is?"

"Yarnell," her daughter-in-law replied. "Haven't heard from him all day."

At 7:28, Colleen typed: "Heard there is a crew trapped surrounded by fire. They were ok but no way out. Worried sick. If you hear anything please let me know."

"How did you hear that?" Stephanie replied. "News??"

At 7:33, Colleen wrote back. "19 fatalities. Hot shots involved"

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For a short time, no one knew who the lone survivor was. Each man's family prayed that their son-husband-brother had been the lucky one.

Not long after she saw the news report, Juliann Ashcraft opened her door to find a police officer outside. Andrew had not made it.

With family and friends to look after the children, she headed to Prescott's Mile High Middle School to grieve with the other families. There, officials gave some details of what had happened. They talked about a freak storm, and said the men appeared to have done everything by the book.

Juliann found some comfort in that, and also in learning that her husband and his friends were never left alone.

Willis and three other men sat vigil with the firefighters all night, until their bodies were removed the next morning and transported to a medical examiner's office. Nineteen American flags were brought to the scene, one to be draped over each man's body.

A week later, the fire these men died fighting burns on, although it is almost fully contained. It claimed property as well as lives, destroying more than 100 homes.

Autopsies of the 19 firefighters have been conducted, and an investigation into what happened here begun. But answers aren't expected still for months.

For now, these towns and these families can only grieve, and begin planning for funerals.

Across from the Granite Mountain crew's headquarters in downtown Prescott, a chain-link fence has become a makeshift shrine. Teddy bears, homemade banners, flower arrangements and fire department T-shirts from all over the country bake in the brutal summer sun.

On the Fourth of July, firefighter Nik Christian stopped by to pay his respects. The burly engine man based out of Flagstaff, Ariz., clambered up a small rise of river rock to clip one of his department's T-shirts to the fence. The Hotshots, he said, were his heroes.

"It's a whole different animal with them," said Christian, whose crew had been dispatched last Sunday to help fight the fire. "Very few people do exactly what they do."

Around the corner, Jennifer Parks of Phoenix was trying to explain to her 6-year-old son, Jake, that this was not where the fallen firefighters were buried.

"No, honey," she said gently. "This is where ... people come to pay their respects."

Jake's 4-year-old brother, Zak, stopped at a circle of tiny toy firetrucks and pointed to one that looked like one of his own back home.

"I have one I want to bring," he told his mom.

One of the family's good friends is a fire chief back in Phoenix. The boys have visited stations and gotten to climb on the engines.

"I want to be a fireman," Zak said. Then in the next breath he added, "I want to be Batman."

A few feet away, someone had placed a sign that read, "Real Heroes Don't Wear Capes." Zak's mother smiled.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix, and Tami Abdollah and Brian Skoloff in Prescott.

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Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/AllenGBreed

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