Revisiting The Fire That Killed 19 Hotshots

Sep 19, 2013

The Yarnell Hill fire that swept through Arizona in late June and early July burned more than 8,000 acres, destroyed 129 buildings and killed 19 firefighters — members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew from nearby Prescott, Ariz.

An independent investigative team has been looking at whether or not human error contributed to the deaths of almost the entire team. Their findings are expected out in the next few weeks.

Here & Now speaks with Kyle Dickman, a former hotshot firefighter and an associate editor at Outside Magazine, about his reporting on the firefighter deaths and what has been learned from the tragedy.

Dickman’s latest piece will be the cover story in next month’s issue of the magazine, and is available online.


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This summer's Yarnell Hill wildfire, in Arizona, was the deadliest for professional wildland firefighters in history - in this nation's history. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew were killed, and a team of independent investigators are trying to figure out why. Their report is expected soon, but we're already learning more about what the firefighters did in their final hours, from a new Outside magazine cover story called "19: The True Story of the Yarnell Fire."

Kyle Dickman wrote the article. He's also a former Hotshot. And Kyle, what more did you learn about where things went wrong?

KYLE DICKMAN: I think it all sort of boils down to a single decision. The crew was up on a ridgeline above the town of Yarnell, when they got a weather report. And the weather report said that the winds were going to shift and start blowing at roughly 50 miles per hour back toward the town of Yarnell. And the crew was in a very safe position. They were in what's known as the black, which is the burned fuel. And at some point, they decided to leave that black, and start heading toward a ranch house that they had in sight. And when they did that, they sort of exposed themselves to the fire and were caught.

HOBSON: Why did they do that?

DICKMAN: We don't really know why they did that. There's a lot of speculation that the reason they did that was to help save a house - you know, help protect a couple of homes they had in sight. All we can do is reconstruct what happened based on radio transmissions, and those are really just fragments of conversations.

HOBSON: And there has been some criticism publicly. It's caused a little bit of controversy. The Arizona State Forestry Division deputy director told a blogger that the leader of the crew, Eric Marsh, had made mistakes. And then the state forestry division had to quickly distance itself from that statement. What do you think we're going to see in this report that is coming out soon?

DICKMAN: Well, I think it's important to understand that the report is really a fact-finding investigation. I don't think that they're - they're not going to be trying to point fingers as to whether or not a mistake was made. I think it's, frankly, 19 firefighters died. I think there's little question as to whether or not a mistake was made. And Eric Marsh, as the supervisor, is going to be held responsible for it.

I think it's also important to keep in mind that firefighting really is a dangerous profession. And, you know, and while mistakes were made, they were in a high-stress situation. I think there was a town that was threatened. They had - there was an incentive to move back toward those houses and try to protect them, and that's not - certainly not any justification for losing 19 firefighter lives. But I, you know, I just - I would hate to see his memory tarnished, basically. I think his intentions were good.

HOBSON: And in your story, you hear of the drama and how quickly things changed. I just want to read a little bit of it.(Reading) The flank that had been slowly backing down the valley had suddenly jumped to life. Two-foot flames had grown to 12 and within moments, the fire was running up a ridge on the east side of the valley and then south, directly at Donut.

And when you say Donut, you're talking about a member of the team, Brendan "Donut" McDonough, who was acting as a scout that day. Let's hear a little bit from him. This is from a documentary that is going to accompany your article.


BRENDAN MCDONOUGH: All this going on, and I'm sitting in the buggy - our buggies. And, you know, I could just - phones going off, family members trying to get a hold of them. And I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to answer them. I wished I could. I wished they could have answered them, but I just - it wasn't going to happen.

HOBSON: Kyle Dickman, how is Donut doing?

DICKMAN: I think he's doing about as you would expect. It's actually been pretty amazing talking to him over the last couple of months. I mean, he's handling it admirably. He went from one member on a 20-man Hotshot crew to basically the entire - to the voice of the wildland fire community, and I think that's been a really hard transition for him. But he's doing well, considering.

HOBSON: You also spoke with some of the families of the victims. This is Linda Caldwell, who was the mother of one of the Hotshots and the aunt of another; describing what it was like to go to the place where they died.


LINDA CALDWELL: I just took some rocks, and I took some of the foil that was from their shelter blankets, and some of the dirt. And - (sighs) - but at the time, I wasn't upset - when I was doing it - because I felt like I was so connected to them that they were actually there while I was there.

HOBSON: It's hard to even listen to. But do the families want to know more about what happened, or would they rather just put this behind them?

DICKMAN: It's actually interesting. Some family members need to know more. And Linda Caldwell, especially; I mean, she also went to - she demanded that she see Robert, her son, and then Grant McKee - which was her nephew; she demanded that she see them before they were cremated. And the bodies were brought in, and they had an - you know, American flags were draped over them. And she - she actually felt their faces through the flags, and was touching their fingers and their toes. And she just needed to - she needed to say goodbye to them.

But on the complete opposite side of that spectrum, some people just don't want to know more. I think that it's really difficult for them to confront the reality of how these guys died. It really is just so horrific. And her husband, Dave Caldwell, didn't even want to go to the site. Eventually, he did. But he was, you know, he didn't want to know many of the details about how his son passed.

HOBSON: And of course, the big question as I read this was, what changes will be made in fighting wildfires, as a result of this, to make sure it never happens again? Your thoughts on that, Kyle Dickman -you're a former Hotshot firefighter, as we said.

DICKMAN: We still don't know yet. But one thing that we - that I would love to see happen is that - you know, this crew was created in 2002, to create what's known as defensible space; and that's removing brush and timber that grows right up next to these houses so when a fire does start, it burns up to the, you know, right up to the edge of the houses, but then it goes out. Yarnell didn't have any defensible space. And I think that there's some sad irony in the fact that these 19 guys died trying to save a town that didn't have defensible space. We might see more, you know, big-picture regulations that say towns have to have a certain amount of defensible space around them.

HOBSON: And in hindsight, are there people wondering whether these firefighters should have been fighting this fire at all? Wouldn't it have been better if maybe the property burned but nobody was killed?

DICKMAN: Well, of course it would have been better. There's no question about that. We fight thousands and thousands of fires every single summer, and there's nothing remarkable on that. And frankly, if Yarnell had burned and these firefighters hadn't died, then we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. And while those questions are being asked - and I think they're very valid questions to ask - I think that there's no reason to expect that we're going to stop fighting fires, especially those that are very close to towns.

HOBSON: Kyle Dickman is a former Hotshot firefighter. He's got the cover story in the November issue of Outside magazine, all about the Yarnell Hill fires and the 19 Hotshot firefighters who died fighting that blaze. Kyle Dickman, thanks so much for joining us.

DICKMAN: And thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.