USA — As the sun started its descent toward the horizon and thunder rumbled, lightning hit a lonely boulder-strewn peak in Arizona, sparking a fire so small that experts decided it didn’t deserve immediate attention.
Within two days, the chaparral-fueled wildfire took the lives of 19 firefighters including three with Orange County roots.
But what went wrong in Arizona is less about wilderness and weather than it is about human error.
Pieced together from hundreds of pages of maps, photographs, reports, videos and findings, here is the story of what happened in the last days of June in the mountains near Prescott Valley, a town I visited with Orange County firefighters a week after the tragedy.
It is a tale of courage, honor and the ultimate in public service.
It also is a story of what can go terribly wrong when trying to control an unpredictable monster in rough terrain that is propelled by shifting winds with gusts exceeding 50 miles an hour a combination starkly similar to three major wildfires in Orange County that destroyed hundreds of homes in the last two decades.
According to an Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation released last month, tactics failed to adjust for changing circumstances; communication was poor; firefighters were required to defend nondefensible structures; a key supervisor abandoned his post; and leaders made decisions that endangered the lives of the very men they were responsible for protecting.
The chaos was so extreme that an air tanker twice snuffed out controlled burns made by the Hotshots who died.
The severe drought that grips Orange County and sucks moisture from leaves is the worst that local fire experts can remember. But conditions are even more threatening in other areas of the western United States.
Exactly three months before the beast was born in the Weaver Mountains, Arizona forestry officials knew they were in for a long, hot and very dangerous summer.
In a world in which fuel substitutes for what most of us call plants, this was the forestry’s spring report: The chaparral vegetation type on state lands around Prescott, Yarnell, Mayer and Bagdad is expected to have a below average live fuel moisture that will lead to high fire potential.
Change the names of the towns to Orange, Yorba Linda and Trabuco Canyon and the report is nearly identical to what I’ve heard from our own fire officials who call our wildland a tinderbox.
Yes, this also is a story about what could happen in Orange County.
The steep escarpments, 5,000-foot ridges, plunging canyons, often impenetrable chaparral and boulder-covered areas in the Weaver Mountains are eerily similar to the Santa Ana range.
Consider that it was only six years ago when a dozen firefighters in Santiago Canyon huddled under last-ditch fire-retardant sacks, the same type of sacks the Hotshots died in. Fortunately, the men in Santiago Canyon lived.
After the lightning bolt hit 3 miles from the town of Yarnell on June 28, a plane scouted the area.
The Yarnell Hill Fire was less than a half-acre. With no vehicle access and dusk setting in, according to Forestry Service as well as Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health documents, officials decided to postpone what firefighters call suppression activities until daylight.
On the morning of June 29, a Bureau of Land Management official flew over the site, estimated the blaze at about 8 acres and developed a battle plan with the incident commander, a man who had worked 28 straight days and would continue working for the next 30 hours.
Of fatigue, safety documents advise: Going 24 hours without sleep affects your decision-making ability the same way a blood-alcohol content of 0.10 would. State law says .10 is drunk.
Single-engine air tankers dropped fire retardant on the fire’s south and west flanks. A two-track road secured the eastern flank. A helicopter dropped off seven firefighters to secure the ridge on the north. At the same time, six firefighters hiked toward the blaze in temperatures reaching 116 degrees.
By lunch, the fire had dwindled to 2 acres, and by midafternoon, it appeared contained. With another fire burning, one of two air tankers was dispatched elsewhere. But around 4:30 p.m., despite low winds, the Yarnell Hill fire jumped the two-track road.
A Bureau of Land Management official offered to take over the fire. Arizona forestry officials declined the offer. Dispatch offered a DC-10 VLAT, a very large air tanker. That offer also was declined.
Within the next two hours, everything changed as should have been expected when blistering heat in arid lands starts to cool. Wind gusts shot to 20 mph. Flames grew to 20 feet. The fire spread over 100 acres.
By sunset, the fire was 1 mile from a village called Peeples Valley, population 375, and just 2.5 miles from Yarnell with 360 homes and 650 people.
The motto on Yarnell’s welcome sign: Where a desert breeze meets the mountain air.
As darkness gathered, several firefighting crews were called. One was a group dubbed the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Its 20 members included the three young men with Orange County connections: Kevin Woyjeck, 21, of Seal Beach; Grant McKee, 21, of Newport Beach; and Robert Caldwell, 23, McKee’s cousin.
They were a tight group who had grown tighter while training and serving as tough, elite first responders for wildfires.
Woyjeck became a firefighter explorer at age 15. His grandmother, Delores, says her grandson’s goal was to follow the example of his dad, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
McKee was engaged to be married to Leah Fine, whom he’d met in Prescott.
Caldwell was married to a woman named Claire, and the couple had a 5-year-old son, Zion.
Around midnight, a small gathering of experts went over plans for the next day, a Sunday. Along with the Hotshots, supervisors ordered 14 engines, six water tenders, two bulldozers and air support.
Thirteen firefighters stayed in the field through the night.
One supervisor later told investigators, You could still see a lot of flames until about 0600. Could see light smoke, but that’s a deceptive thing. If you’re around fire much, you know that there’s still a lot of heat out there.
At 7 a.m. June 30, the incident command post was set up at Model Creek School in Peeples Valley. After working every day in June but two, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were given their orders: Establish the anchor (an advantageous spot to start a fire line) at the heel of the fire using direct and indirect attack.
The crew discussed safety zones and escape routes including a bomb proof area in a place called Boulder Springs Ranch.
Still, the extensive independent investigation conducted by Wildland Fire Associates and commissioned by the occupational safety division notes that the team was offered little local knowledge about trails and roads and lacked maps or aerial photos to gauge distances, terrain, flora and additional escape routes.
At 8 a.m. Woyjeck, McKee, Caldwell and the rest of their crew headed into the unknown.