By John Dougherty
Yarnell, AZ — Prescott Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis on Tuesday described what he believes happened on June 30 when the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew made a last ditch stand in a box canyon against a wind tunnel of fire.
He gave his version of the tragic events to “embedded” reporters, photographers and videographers who were allowed access to the site in an escorted tour led by the Arizona State Forestry Division. The event attracted the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Outside Magazine.
Reporters were asked not to photograph a nearby ranch compound that has the closest undamaged structures to where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died of a combination of burns, smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning just 500 yards away.
American and Arizona flags flapped in the wind from a 20-foot flagpole that marks the firefighters’ shelter deployment site and is visible from State Route 89 cutting through the heart of this played out gold mining town. That’s how close the crew was to safety.
Willis, who helped establish the nation’s only municipal hotshot crew in 2008 with Eric Marsh, the 43-year-old crew superintendent who died in the fire, provided a 15-minute description of what he believed to be the team’s final moments. Willis was not at the location at the time of the burn-over, but said he was working with fire teams to the north.
(The video below is Part I of two videos of Willis’ comments. The second video where Willis’ responds to media questions is posted further down in the story.)
He made the comments while standing in front of a chain link fenced enclosure protecting the ground where the men perished.
Willis provided the most comprehensive overview of what may have occurred, but it is not the official version of events. That won’t come until early September when the state forestry division releases the 60-day critical incident report that is being prepared by an inter-agency team.
Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office investigators, meanwhile, are attempting to extract data from damaged cell phones found next to the fallen firefighters to gain more clues into their final moments.
In response to questions, Willis said the Hotshot crew found itself in a treacherous position after the fire had “basically flanked them” while they were still on a 100-foot high ridge with a two-track jeep running along its crest.
Whatever plans that were in place were discarded.
“They were picking and choosing their escape route at that point and time,” Willis said.
Willis said the men descend into a “U” shaped canyon opening to the east, only to find that the fire had swept around the north leg of the U and was running straight towards them.
The powerful, downdrafts from a thunderstorm that had been redeveloping all day as it tracked on southwesterly course from its origin on the Mogollon Rim west of Flagstaff, exploded the fire into a chaotic swirl.
“Due to the wind factor, they had no idea they were going to be here, they thought they were going to be moving north,” Willis said while thrusting his left arm. “They had no idea what was behind them at this point and time.”
What was behind them was raging fire.
He said the lookout, and only Granite Mountain Hotshot survivor, was on a ridge to the north and could not see the crew once it began to descend down a steep ravine into the bowl.
(Darrell Willis answers questions from media in the video below:)
Five hundred paces to the east was a llama ranch with plenty of open space to provide shelter from the fire. Indeed, the ranch was left relatively unscathed by the fire, while houses nearby burned to the ground because they lacked what firefighters call “defensible space.”
Asked if the crew descended into the bowl in an effort to get to the ranch for protection, Willis shifted his earlier position that the crew was looking for escape routes and now insisted the Hot Shots were instead continuing their mission to protect life and property.
“It’s all speculation at this point and time, but in my heart I would know they are not protecting themselves. They are going to go, and they are going to protect that ranch,” he said. “They protected themselves as a last resort,” he said.
Their last stand came on a slight rise deep in the canyon’s throat.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they chose that point for a reason, because that is going to lift the fire off of them,” he said.
The crew quickly cut down thickets and moved brush to build a perimeter defense of kindling. The slash, Willis said, was set on fire in the hope of knocking down the wall of flames that was rapidly approaching.
The men deployed their pup tent fire shelters in a “very tight area”, Willis said while turning to point at a slightly discolored area of earth that was ringed by burned stumps and draped with black ash.
“This is where they had to deploy,” Willis said. “I think they picked the best location in this bowl. If you look at it and study it, there was no place else that they could go. I mean, you’re in a box canyon here.”
Willis said all 19 of the $500-a-piece shelters were deployed, although some of the firefighters were not found completely inside their shelters. The extreme heat, Willis said, also broke down the protective material of the fire shelters.
“They are the best of the best equipment that money can buy,” Willis said.
Why the men were in a such a dire situation that wildland firefighters strive to avoid, remains a crucial question that has not been clearly answered.
Less than an hour earlier, at 4:04 p.m., the crew was in a relatively safe area that had already been burned over. Morgan Lowe, a KPHO-Channel 5 reporter, asked Willis why the crew left the burned over area and moved into a high-risk, unburned area packed with 40-years of dried out thickets.
“How typical was their decision to come into something like this, leaving the black?” Lowe asked.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Willis said. The answer, he said, is habit.
“It’s ingrained in firefighters to want to protect property,” he said. “Why do firefighters run into burning buildings?”
Willis said the Hotshots were not going to “sit up there” in safety when there was “potential for people to be at risk somewhere.”
At the same time, Willis said, the firefighters were not going to engage in action that was “risking their lives.”
They simply made a cold calculation in a heated moment.
“They thought they had the option to make it. It’s a time versus distant thing that I see,” he said.
Such decisions are routine with Hotshots crew. “They’re happening today,” Willis said, referring to fires in Montana.
But it appears the firefighters made a crucial mistake when they expected the fire to be moving in a northerly direction rather in a southwesterly direction straight towards them.
“I don’t think they recognized, or eh, I know they knew the fire, there was plenty of reports of thunderstorms, outflows, things like that, I don’t think they were aware of how quick it moved,” he said.
The fire’s ground speed increased 400 percent from earlier in the day, at about the same time the wind pivoted 180 degrees.
“What they were seeing most of the day and what happened after, you know, 4:30 in the afternoon, whatever, was such extreme fire behavior that nobody expected what occurred,” he said.
While nobody expected a firestorm, there was plenty of warning that one could happen, Willis said. The crew, he said, knew that powerful wind gusts from the north were approaching.
“Yes, there is confirmation of that. There is no question about it,” Willis said.
The swirling fire that engulfed the Granite Mountain Hotshots has left a confusing path of conflicting motivations for the crew’s behavior. Whether they were trying to escape or continue their mission, the end result was catastrophe.
The firefighters descended down a steep hillside, through four decades of overgrown desert scrub cooked by years of drought and punctuated with record heat days earlier, into a charging inferno blowing straight towards them — with no way out.
The crew leaves behind 10 widows and 13 children.© Copyright 2013 John Dougherty, All rights Reserved. Written For: Investigative MEDIA
John Bates, Chula Vista FD in San Diego County says
Chief Willis, thank you for the information, I’m sure it must have been difficult. This was a huge lose for all fire fighters. I want you to know that every fire fighter in San Diego County shed a tear that day.
Our thoughts and prayers are out to your department and the families of the fallen.
Take care and be safe
Captain , John Bates
Chula Vista FD
Little T says
Dito LZ and “another Hotshot” ….Later.
Little T says
No amount of money or apology will ever be enough for the lost and their families. A gnashing of teeth and ringing of hands will be the life sentence for the leadership in this incident. Chief Willis is obviously over his head as a wild land firefighter and I know he is hurting but he shouldn’t have given the press briefing (see video) after all he’d been through. His pot bellied associate wandering into this video only compounded the problem.
I’ve seen this to many times as a Hot Shot and as a friend to suffering survivors of the 1966 El Cariso Hot Shots. Lessons have NOT been learned and the need to deploy fire shelters in the first place reeks of poor leadership. The speed and rate of spread observed at the Yarnell Hill Fire is common to Southern California. Post Yarnell fire training should require all Hot Shot supervisors to have a minimum of two years firefighting experience in Southern California and attend US Forest Service Staff Rides every two years.
I also question the need for a backpack weighing forty five pounds to be carried by Hot Shot crew members. These packs are not essential for cutting fire line and may have hindered the Granite Mountain Hotshots from getting out of the brush they should have never been in to begin with.
Rest easy boys!
Little Tujunga Hot Shots 1970
Another Hotshot says
The more Darrel opens his mouth, the more damage he does. These comments are more off base than even those at the memorial. Maybe Joe Public eats this up, but anyone with fire experience is going to see right through his BS. I realize his judgment is clouded with grief, but it might be best to just let the report come out.
As I listened to this interview I couldn’t help but get angrier as it went on. As a wildland firefighter for many years now retired I can only tell you I would never trust this man’s judgement on an incident. I couldn’t believe his ill placed rationale for firefighters taking risks to save structures. It’s lives (including thier own) property, natural resources, in that order. I also couldn’t help counting the number of 10 Standards and 13 situations violated. I understand this is a sensitive situation and my heart grieves for those families, but we’ve got to get beyond protecting reputations and tell the truth.
Willis said on at least two occasions that LCES does not apply when one is “in transition” moving from one place on the fire to another and that it is “impossible to have predetermined escape routes and safety zones.” WRONG! This is wrong and a very dangerous attitude to foster because LCES applies on every fire, every time whether in transition or not.
Willis also made comments that no wildland firefighters are satisfied with sitting there and watching a fire progress without taking some action. WRONG again! This experienced wildland firefighter has done this many times as the fire raged, with absolutely no regrets. Staying in a viable safety zone as they had, would have been the correct thing to do.
He also said “They are going to prtoect the house and not yourselves. They protect themselves as a last resort.” WRONG once again! Life and property considers first YOUR life. I am deeply concerned about these structure type attitudes blending into the wildland fire realm.
William Riggles says
Cohesiveness goes so far. It’s the responsibility of every crew member to call out unsafe practices! But like Willis said, they do it all the time and they get away with it.
The lesson should be understanding COLD downslope air flows! You can’t see it coming, but we need to learn to read the signs that lead to these events.
Settling columns of cold air is like water pouring down through the canyons. As this heavy cold air travels over the fire, hot air is trapped next to the ground, preheating fuels ahead of the fire.
On the Little Bear Fire, I watched it RUN downhill at night with the downslope winds. The people evacuating ahead of it before daylight said the thermometers in their cars were reading above 100 degrees!!!
Lessons Learned Center, needs to address this phenomenon. I hear very little about it!
Steve Delgadillo says
I worked for the old California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection (now Cal Fire) and retired after 27 years. I worked wildland stations as a firefighter, Engineer, and Captain. I worked helitack, I supervised hand crews, and worked in a municipal contract where I served as the Fire Marshal for 8 years. I was assigned to a Type I Incident Management team for years.
The events where these firefighters were killed is a great tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of these men. It remains to be seen what the official report of the accident will reveal. I know from my extensive knowledge of wildland fires that mistakes were made. The risk verses gain aspect of their actions has to be looked at heavily. The decision to go into 10′ tall green which Chief Willis said had manzanita in it downhill with drainage upslope to the spot where they deployed was at best a decision that needs to be explored extensively. I learned very early in my firefighting career that there isn’t a piece of brush worth a persons life the same goes for a structure. I surely don’t want to say anything bad about the men that gave their lives that day but from my experience someone made a very bad decision that cost lives. He mentioned Storm King, there is a firefighter that survived deployment at Storm King and has stated in interviews that he has deployed his shelter 3 times. REALLY! Don’t you think something is wrong with that. I sure do. I always told all the firefighters that I supervised that if I had us deploy fire shelters and we lived through it I would retire right then because I screwed up somewhere. There is a feeling out there by many firefighters that we beat fire all the time. The reality is that fire goes where it wants to and we just mop up it’s wake. Think, be safe first and always, my brothers and sisters because we don’t need to have these kind of tragedies.
Pat Byrnes says
Prescott division chief Willis’ briefing, while admittedly speculative in parts, contained a remark that troubled me. If I heard right, he seems to think that it is very frequently the case that wildland fire fighters, especially when hiking to or from fire line, must often forego being anywhere near a viable safety zone. With unstable weather that the fire crew didn’t seem to have full awareness of, and a lookout in a vulnerable place who had to evacuate, it seems that the crew rapidly found themselves in a situation without the basic protection of LCES — lookouts, communications, escape routes, safety zones. It might also be a bit troubling if they gave up good safe black in order to try to re-engage the fire as it was blowing up and escaping any hope of immediate confinement. I hope this isn’t like the disastrous attempt at re-engaging an out-of-control fire without good lookout or fire knowledge that happened in the 30 Mile fire near the Canadian border.
Dumb question — does a heavy load of dried-out chaparral burn really hot so as to have a high chance of defeating shelters?
Pat Byrnes says
For Marcia: That country just naturally has those big boulders and rock outcroppings.
George Atwood says
“Point protection?” With hand tools? Granted, I left the agency 10 years ago, but in my 23 years, I never heard of such a tactic. Is Mr Willis saying that perhaps they had intended to fire out around the ranch? He spoke of them doing their assignment, then describes them leaving the ridge to go do something else that was not communicated on the radio. Is he describing independent action?
I can’t imagine how terrible he must feel about this, but Willis is not making it any better. Maybe he’s not trying to, maybe he recognizes the lessons here are more valuable than trying to protect anyones reputation. Sooner or later some real hard truths are going to come out of this that need to come out so others remember the mistakes made here before committing their crew to do something like this. Yeah I said it. Somebody sure as heck needs to. His video describes 18 men being led by 1 down hill into a box like canyon with brush 4′ over their head. A death route with no safety zones. The fire obviously wasn’t visible under that brush, but the building cells must of been.
I’m sorry, but like many other current & former Hot Shots, I am very upset by this.
Brian T. Miller says
I can’t help but agree. I have been horrified by the entire incident and can’t help but think human factors will play out as a major contibutor to this tragedy. I just can’t fathom what would have made them leave the black and descend into a box canyon. Over 22 years, I was a hotshot, helitack, smokejumper, and municipal fire officer. The pictures of the entrapment site just scream out at me as being untenable. I so mourn their loss but agree that an unscrubbed assessment of what went down is the only way to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Marcia Weary says
My son lives in Prescott. His daughter knew two of the Hotshots who died. Like so many others, their lives are changed forever.
Are the rock piles pictured in the videos scree from mining? Was the bowl created from mining debris?