The wildfire that killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots in June overtook them so fast that they barely had time to react, Men’s Journal reports in a deeply detailed story about Arizona’s elite backcountry firefighters and the 48 hours leading up to their deaths.
What started on Friday, June 28th, as a small brushfire caused by a lightning strike at the top of Yarnell Hill, Arizona, had by Sunday morning become a vast inferno that had burned more than 300 acres. The Hotshots, who arrived early that day to help contain it, were ambushed that afternoon by flames when the wind shifted as a result of an approaching thunderstorm. They were trapped by a 40-foot wall of fire in a canyon while they were attempting to make their way to safety.
The Hotshots, who were part of the Prescott, Arizona, fire department, ranged in age from their early 20s to mid-40s; in the off-season, they held down construction, restaurant and ranching jobs. Several were husbands and fathers, and all had spent hundreds of hours training – sometimes working as long as 21 straight days with minimal rest – digging firelines to break the path of uncontrolled blazes.
As the fire raced toward them on June 30th, the Hotshots fell back on their measure of last resort: deploying emergency shelters woven of fiberglass and aluminum foil that were meant to protect firefighters from flames that quickly pass over them. Crew chief Eric Marsh radioed that the Hotshots were readying their shelters shortly before 5 p.m., marking the last time the crew was heard from. More than 100 minutes passed before the smoke cleared enough for rescue workers to reach where the Hotshots had been. The fire burned so hot – between 3,000 and 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit – that little remained for their colleagues to find.