A photo of all 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots posing in a human pyramid was turned into a statue at the Yarnell Hill Fire Memorial. (Photo by Sean Lynch/Cronkite News)
YARNELL – Brendan McDonough knew he wanted to be a hotshot from the day he sat atop the Prescott High School bleachers and saw wildfires in the distance.
Something was calling him.
He answered, and five years later, on June 30, 2013, he was fully immersed in the role of Granite Mountain Hotshot. These specially trained firefighters are at the forefront of wildland fire management, and on this day, his unit of 20 was battling a monster that had been raging for almost 48 hours near this small, unincorporated community near Prescott.
McDonough, entrusted with the role of lookout, monitored weather changes and fire patterns from a distance. As the afternoon progressed, an extreme weather shift forced McDonough out of his location to another, while his unit fought the encroaching blaze. Chaotic radio traffic ensued.
The fire had entrapped the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots after they had sought shelter. It was the largest loss of life among firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Ten years later, the story of Yarnell is one of loss but also survival. A Navajo heirloom emerging intact from the rubble. A burned, wounded cat seeking comfort from a stranger. And a firefighter, the lone survivor of the hotshots crew, trying to rebuild a life and answer a question that haunts him: “Why didn’t I die that day?”
“I think one important thing reflecting on the 10-year anniversary that I want people to remember my brothers for is not just not just being firefighters, and not that they gave us ultimate sacrifice, but also the impact that they have on their families,” McDonough told Cronkite News. “They were fathers, and sons, and brothers, cousins, and husbands. They loved life in so many different ways.”
A lightning strike ignited the massive wildfire, spreading from 300 acres to 2,000 in less than 48 hours. At its peak, 8,400 acres of land were engulfed by flames. Wind gusts reached 22 miles per hour, and air temperatures reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the fire was contained, over 8,300 acres had burned and 93 homes were completely destroyed.
And a city mourned.
Before moving to Prescott, McDonough grew up near Camp Pendleton in Southern California and had long been intrigued by a life of serving others. He watched many of his friends and their parents serve tours overseas and looked into fire service because it was a different kind of service.
“I was in elementary school when 9/11 happened,” McDonough said. “From a young age, it was instilled in me to serve others. And so I think that’s part of the reason why I looked at the fire service is just because it was different.”
McDonough was enrolled in an EMT class in 2011 with a few men who were already hotshots. He overheard them talking about an opening in their crew. Granite Mountain Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh was in a tight spot after four hotshots left the department.
McDonough showed up at the station the next day to drop off a resume. When he left the building, a door he was walking through banged with Marsh’s office door.
“He was like, “Son, do you know how to use a door?’” McDonough recalled Marsh saying. ‘“Well, you either walk through it or close it.’”
He closed the door and moments later asked McDonough if he could do a job interview right then and there. Not long after, he got the job.
Marsh saw something in McDonough and took a chance on him.
Marsh’s leadership style was firm but allowed McDonough to grow into the brotherhood of the hotshots. After fighting many blazes with his squad, he earned the trust and confidence of the group.
As flames spread on Yarnell Hill, air tankers dropped flame retardant in an attempt to halt the spread of the fire, but the attempt proved meaningless. It was then that Marsh and Captain Jesse Steed asked McDonough to fulfill a task that showed their ultimate trust in him: to be the group’s lookout.
It was a day that changed him forever. His entire unit was gone, including Marsh and Steed.
At 22, McDonough saw most of his friends graduating from college and starting their “regular jobs.” Because of the trauma, loss and grief, he missed out on an important time of personal development and growth.
In the years after the tragedy, he worked odd jobs to support himself until he could figure out what he wanted to do long term. During that time, he worked with multiple non-profits, wrote a book and was involved with a movie about the tragedy.
It wasn’t until he started to address his PTSD, alcoholism and depression that he found his purpose in life: helping others who suffered from similar mental health struggles as McDonough once did.
“This kind of notoriety has provided opportunities to make a change and be a voice of encouragement, overcoming adversity and addressing mental health and substance abuse in a positive way that allows people to find healing,” McDonough said.
Years after the tragedy, he opened Holdfast Recovery, a substance abuse and mental health facility in Prescott. Returning to fire service wasn’t an option for him mentally, but that didn’t stop him from starting his own business to help and serve others.
“When you go through something, and you experience it, you can’t help but want to help others find that same freedom,” he said. “It’s something I’m proud to say I do today. It’s something that I feel honors the legacy of my brothers and something that’s giving back. It’s not the same as fighting fire, but it’s the same belief. You’re helping, giving back and serving others.”
Each day since the fire, the community of Yarnell, whose population still hovers around 700, works to rebuild. And its residents serve the needs of the town in different ways.
Long before the Yarnell Hill Fire, there was a girl from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in the 1940s who loved to paint.
Barbara Schlegel, now 85, also loved to teach. Her career in education – which spanned over 50 years across three countries and five states – allowed her to combine her two passions: teaching and painting.
She went from Canada to Saudi Arabia to Missouri to Alaska to Idaho Falls, and lastly to Yarnell, where she has resided with her husband, Wayne, for the last 20 years. She taught kindergarten at a private school in Phoenix for much of her time in the state.
Her teaching style reflected her personality: soft-spoken, nurturing and thinking of others. She combined her two passions by gifting her watercolor paintings to fellow teachers and students alike.
She took photos and created various paintings in the aftermath of the fires. It was a therapeutic outlet for her to document her surroundings through watercolors and a camera.
Like Schlegel, many Yarnell residents lost items such as personal belongings, memorabilia and artwork as a result of the fire.
Yarnell resident Don Mason lost many things. His aluminum ladder melted into something that can be perceived as modern art, but now hangs on his fence. He owned a silversmith shop where most of his things were destroyed, except his grandmother’s brooch, which was still in perfect condition.
“I had all kinds of stuff that was totally melted and just totally destroyed into globs,” Mason said. “But one of the volunteers pulled my grandmother’s brooch out of the rubble. And it’s in perfect shape, like it never went through the fire. And to me, that was a miracle because everything else in my silversmithing shop was totally gone.”
His grandmother’s brooch was made by a Navajo man named Joseph Smith. She would proudly wear the brooch at family gatherings. Smith only made two sand castings of the Indian’s face. One was for her, and the other is in The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.
“For it to come out of the fire perfectly unscathed was a miracle to me. I cherish it,” Mason said.
In late-2013, a woman from Prescott bought boxes, filled them with items and placed them throughout a nearby school gymnasium for Yarnell residents to take for free.
One woman brought a box filled with handmade things from preschool children. Schlegel noticed one of the things that looked like a painting of hers with sunflowers and black trees. “I thought, ‘Oh, I need this one because it reminds me of my painting,” she said.
She looked at the piece of art when she brought it home and noticed it was dedicated to somebody.
“In memory of Grant McKee, 21 years old, done by his father Scott.”
McKee was the youngest of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire. The piece of art sits on her bedroom mantel, where it has remained virtually untouched since she brought it home for the first time.
A month after the fires, a wounded cat showed up in Schlegel’s backyard. The cat had burns on one side of his body and his ribcage showed beyond the skin. He was hungry for not just food, but for an affectionate owner in a time of heartbreak.
“He was such a sad-looking kitty,” Schlegel said. “I took him to the vet and they had a book. The book had all the names of cats and dogs that were lost in the fire. And she checked the book and said, ‘I don’t see him.’ She gave him a brush, a shot, and said, ‘I guess he’s yours.’”
Schlegel and her husband Wayne nurtured the cat for the next four years. The cat, which was named, Ash-Lee, had reached its lowest point and with the help of the Schlegel’s was brought back to life and living in its purest form – a metaphor for the people of Yarnell – who helped each other in the face of an unfathomable disaster.
The memories of the fallen live on.
One day after Granite Mountain Hotshot Clayton Whitted’s 28th birthday, On June 28, 2013, a dry lightning strike struck Bureau of Land Management that trigged the Yarnell fire.
Whitted, a Prescott High School graduate, had a lifelong dream to become a firefighter. He continued his education at Yavapai College and Arizona State University to gain more fire science knowledge.
Shortly before his mother passed away from an illness in 2007, he became a junior high pastor, where he positively impacted the lives of hundreds of teenagers. His selflessness showed in his daily work, where he frequently gave back to the community.
He continued his dream of being a firefighter by joining the Granite Mountain Hotshots in the spring of 2008. Through his passion for firefighting and willingness to help others, he ascended rapidly through the ranks of the hotshots. He was quickly promoted to the role of a Saw Boss before being promoted to a Squad Boss.
When the deadliest wildfire in Arizona history struck on a Sunday evening – there was no surprise that Whitted would be a first responder.
“He was a smart young man with a great personality, just a wonderful personality,” Lou Beneitone, his football coach at Prescott High School, told the New York Times. “When he walked into a room, he could really light it up,” he said.
Government officials conducted assessments of the wildfires’ damages on July 7, 2013. According to the initial Preliminary Damage Assessment from FEMA, 116 residences were impacted, and over 80% of those residences were completely destroyed. About 30 structures were uninsured homes and half of the impacted communities were identified as low-income. The fires caused approximately $900 million in damages
In addition to the affected homes and personal property, the wildfire caused about $1 million in structural damages to the Yarnell Water Improvement Association. The water co-op was the only water supply for the entire community.
Though an entire community was affected by the Wildfire, the damages associated with the Yarnell Hill Fire did not meet the threshold for FEMA Funding.
Two days after surveying the damages, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer requested that FEMA declare the fire a “major disaster,” which would have provided expansive financial assistance to those in need.
A month later, FEMA denied the request, and after Brewer submitted an appeal, it was denied once again. Various government emergency funds could not provide the much-needed funding to the community because of the extensive damages and inconsistent insurance coverages on damaged properties throughout the town.
By July 8, locals were allowed to return to the town, and the fires weren’t fully contained until two days later. Homes were destroyed, cars were burnt beyond recognition and people were left to grieve and wonder what the recovery process would look like.
While still evacuated from the town, the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group was founded by resident Frances Lechner. The goal of the non-profit group was to source funding and aid direct recovery progress creatively.
The group worked with many associations at the national and state levels to rebuild, repair and recover necessities within the town. According to FEMA’s website, almost $13 million in public donations were raised to distribute to victims and their families.
“In one case, they were working on 11 uninsured homes,” Lechner said. “So a huge amount of effort went into rebuilding. We had help from Apostolic Christian World Relief and volunteers and they built 10 homes in nine months.”
Yarnell residents Jerry and Kurt Florman were one of many who lost their homes due to the fire. Kurt had built the home himself before the fire caused them to lose it.
“It was a time of change in our lives,” Jerry Florman said. “We were lucky (that) we were able to find a home to buy. We just bought a different home in a slightly different location. So we were happy to stay here because this is an amazing little town and it is truly a joy and a gift to be part of this community.”
According to a FEMA Case Study, there were four lessons learned as a result of the fires:
“I was talking with a woman from the Arizona Division of Emergency Management just last month, and she said, ‘We still consider your Yarnell’s recovery the gold standard for how things ought to be done,’’ Lechner said. “Because we started organizing before we even came back from the evacuation. And so it’s all volunteers. And that’s how this is happening to an unincorporated community. That’s how things happen. Volunteers.”
A year after the fire, the Arizona House of Representatives passed HB 2624 to authorize and fund the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park in Yarnell, and it was established in 2016. It remains the only Arizona state park established this century.
By July, 2018, almost all of the funds raised by the group were disbursed among residents who lost their homes, property and infrastructure. The remaining funds were used for the Yarnell Hill Memorial Park, which was completed on June 30, 2021.
The community continues to hold events to keep the memory of the firefighters alive. The annual Yarnell Memorial Run took place recently in the residential areas of Yarnell, drawing 281 race participants and dozens of volunteers and spectators alike.
The races give greater meaning than a competitive run. Memories are shared, money is raised for future firefighters of the Yarnell Fire Department and an opportunity is given for people from wide and far to visit the small, mountainside town of Yarnell.
Frances Lechner was at a conference in North Carolina when someone brought up how divisions between people disappear when a disaster occurs. It brought back memories of the Yarnell Hill Fire to Lechner, and how it unified an already close-knit community.
“There are times I can talk about the fire and the hot shots perfectly matter-of-factly. And other times when I talk about it, I get choked up,” Lechner said.
Without trivializing her words, a facilitator of a workshop at the conference she attended mentioned the impact of having your home destroyed, your community burnt down and family members killed because of hatred. Historically, this happened to indigenous people, Black Americans and Hispanics in our country and places throughout the world.
“It was humbling because there are experiences around the world that we don’t pay attention to because we’re so focused on what’s in front of us,” she added with tears rolling down her face. “Whether it is getting the next meal, keeping the job, whatever it may be. It was definitely eye-opening and heart-opening to hear that.”
The Yarnell Hill tragedy is a story of heroes that lost their lives, of homes that were destroyed and lives that were changed forever.
It is a story about loss. But also survival.