PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The lone survivor on an elite Arizona firefighting crew was serving as a lookout and relaying key information to his colleagues when a raging wildfire trapped and killed them, officials said Tuesday.
Brendan McDonough, 21, was in his third season with the 20-member, Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots.
He was assigned to be a “heads-up on the hillside” for the team on that fateful afternoon two days ago, said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman who relayed McDonough’s story at an afternoon news conference.
Ward said McDonough “did exactly what he was supposed to” when conditions changed as his team fought the mountain blaze near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
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He notified the other Hotshots that the weather was changing rapidly and told them the fire had switched direction because of the wind. He also told them he was leaving the area and to contact him on the radio if they needed anything, Ward said.
Ward received a standing ovation as he implored the media: “Please leave him alone.”
McDonough “has no desire to speak to anybody at this point,” he said. “He’s trying to deal with the same things that we’re all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that’s compounded being there on the scene.”
In the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team of Hotshots willing to go to the hottest part of the blaze.
The tragedy raised questions of whether the crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference at all in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.
They were deep into the mountains southwest of here, lugging enough equipment to cut deep trenches around the flames, one of the strategies that hotshot teams use to try to contain fires.
As a storm moved over the area, one of them radioed the commanders at a base camp nearby, saying that the men, trapped, were going to deploy their emergency shelters, which are designed to protect them from intense heat, but only for a short period.
In 1994, 14 firefighters died on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain, and investigators afterward found numerous errors in the way the blaze was fought. In the Storm King tragedy, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging, creating 100-foot tongues of flame. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.
The U.S. Forest Service revised its firefighting policies as a result of the blaze.
A swelling army of firefighters aided by bulldozers, air tankers and helicopters struggled Tuesday to subdue the Yarnell blaze that carved a destructive path through two mountainside communities whose residents were forced to flee.
The Forest Service sent four C-130 planes to work on this fire and on another wildfire in Kingman, on the western edge of the state, which doubled in size overnight Monday and charred more than 2,300 acres Tuesday.
Each of the planes is capable of dropping 3,000 gallons of water and fire retardant in less than five seconds, a Forest Service spokesman said.
The firefighters’ chief opponent has been the wind, which gusted at 20 mph throughout the day from the south and southwest, only to twirl under thick storm clouds that have for days moved over the area in the late afternoons.
The clouds, according to Stewart Turner, a fire-behavior analyst in the multiagency team that has taken command of the operation, “Push the wind down, then they push it out in different directions, in unpredictable ways.”
As another thunderstorm was forecast to move over the region, pilots were warned Tuesday morning that they might have to ground their planes again, said Jim Wallmann, a meteorologist working at the command center outside Peeples Valley, one of the villages that the fire has partly destroyed.
Increasingly, the shifting winds — part of a meteorological phenomenon known as outflow — have become the main focus of investigators who arrived from several states Tuesday to begin piecing together what happened to the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the elite firefighters killed Sunday.
Ralph Lucas, a battalion chief for the Prescott Fire Department, said that firefighters had spoken of “a large thunderstorm above the fire” just as the men deployed their emergency shelters, a last resort when they have no place to hide and no time to run.
“That may have led to the incident,” Lucas said.
The size of the fire has remained steady: 8,400 acres, or roughly 13 square miles, burning through canyons, ridges and slopes covered by parched piñon pine, chaparral bush and yellowed grass.
It is a small area compared with other Western wildfires, but as of Tuesday the blaze had yet to be contained. Turner of the multiagency Southwest Incident Command Team said it might not be until the wind subsides or rain falls that significant progress would be made.
The uncertainty and the instability of the weather have left residents here on edge. A modest yet steady flow of people has come through the shelters set up by the American Red Cross here and in Wickenburg. Some stay overnight. Others take showers and grab a bite.
There were 500 firefighters working the line Tuesday and at least six aircraft helping them from above, with more to come. They had built a cordon around the fire, hoping to salvage what is left of Yarnell and Peeples Valley, old gold-mining villages southwest of Prescott that have been under an evacuation order since Sunday.