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Yarnell Hill Fire: The Granite Mountain Hotshots Never Should've Been Deployed, Mounting Evidence Shows

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See Also: A Granite Mountain Hotshot's Father Says the Blaze That Incinerated His Son Could've Been Controlled

Paxon chokes up and begins describing a fissure in a granite boulder forming a cross that flanks the site where the men were incinerated by a mammoth, manzanita-fueled blowtorch. Among wildland firefighters, the oily plant is well known for its explosive characteristics. The fire was so hot that it caused some of the granite boulders to crack.

"This crew was extremely faith-based, and they operated in the joy of life, and that is one of the ways we want to remember them," Paxon says.

A somber press corps hikes about 600 yards from a ranch house left unscathed by the Yarnell Hill Fire, thanks to large clearings on its perimeter that robbed the fire of fuel.

Where once stood a near-impenetrable tangle of high-desert brush, collectively called "chaparral," only blackened earth and a few charred stumps remain. Ahead is a chain-link fence surrounding the site where the men met their fate at the base of a U-shaped canyon opening to the east.

Ten yards in front of the fence, Darrell Willis awaits the press. Dressed in a black Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt and wearing sunglasses, Willis is the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Division chief and the direct supervisor of the nation's only municipal-based hotshot crew. Nearly all the rest of the 108 hotshot crews are attached to federal land-management agencies, with most operated by the U.S. Forest Service.

See Also: Closer Look: How 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots Died in the Yarnell Hill Fire (Slideshow)

Willis has worked for the Prescott Fire Department since 1985 and retired as its fire chief in 2007. He was rehired the same year to a $123,000-a-year position as Prescott's emergency services director. Willis took over as Wildland Division chief in 2010, at $90,000 a year. He served with Granite Mountain crew on an 18-day deployment in 2011.

TV crews hook up microphones to Willis' shirt as photographers fan out to take the first pictures of what wildland firefighters call the "deployment site." This is where at least some of the hotshots, in a desperate attempt to survive the charging inferno, opened their thin aluminum mini-tent fire shelters and climbed under them, pushing their faces deep into the dirt in the hope of finding cool air as the 500-degree-plus fire approached. Only four or five of the men's bodies were found in the shelters, police reports state.

With the microphones attached, a score of cameras ready, and the national press — including correspondents from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — poised, Willis begins a 15-minute monologue describing what he believes happened on that afternoon, when America's tight-knit National Interagency Fire Center hotshot crews suffered their biggest disaster in the network's 66-plus-year history.

Willis' controversial explanation of what led his crew into a dense thicket, as a powerful thunderstorm blasting winds of more than 40 miles per hour rapidly approached, has triggered intense debate in the hotshot world, despite his trying to block such inquiry.

"The voice of what actually happened, we'll never know," Willis says. "We're not going to have that information from [the dead men]."

Willis continues, "It was just one of those things that happened. You can call it an accident. I just say that God had a different plan for that crew at this time."

Invocation of a spiritual cause for the hotshots' deaths has triggered sharp criticism from former wildland firefighters interviewed for this story.

"If you accept that this horrific catastrophe — unprecedented in the history of hotshots — is because God had a different plan for those 19 men, then you're not going to go beyond God's will for causal factors, and that means you're going to leave the door open for this to happen again," says Gary Olson, a former superintendent of Arizona's Happy Jack Hotshots, founder of the Santa Fe Hotshots, and, later, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management criminal investigator.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty