USA — Facing hundreds of acres of wildfire, dry chaparral and gusts of wind nearly strong enough to knock him over, the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighter supervisor concluded his ridge was no longer the place to be.
Eric Marsh radioed that winds were squirrely and reported his crew was going to make our way through our escape route.
But it was 4 p.m. on June 30 near Yarnell, Ariz., and the situation was far more precarious than Marsh could know.
Wind speeds soon would skyrocket and dramatically change direction. Trucks that earlier had ferried Marshs Hotshots were in the fires path and had to be evacuated. No one outside of the crew knew their escape route.
Worse, according to an Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation, confusion, lousy communication and a deadly lack of leadership reigned over the entire 300-firefighter operation.
In the wilderness, things can break bad within seconds especially when there are gale-force winds.
As Marsh, 43, radioed his plans, the Granite Mountain Hotshot who served as the crews lookout reported that flames were closing in on his trigger point a previously determined location that, when fire crosses, firefighters leave.
Confident that it was move or die, Brendan McDonough headed toward a clearing near an old grader. As the 21-year-old, nicknamed Donut, reached the grader, a supervisor driving a utility terrain vehicle spotted McDonough and picked him up.
McDonough was fortunate. Within 15 minutes, his tiny clearing was consumed by 40-foot flames.
The lookout reported that he understood his Hotshot brothers to be in a black zone a safe area already burned. An operational-section chief understood the same thing, confirming the crew was in a good place.
But a five-month investigation by the occupational safety division concluded that confusion wasnt only at the top management levels. It was in the ranks.
Shortly before 4 p.m., Hotshot Scott Norris texted his mother a photo of a massive wall of flames. The 28-year-old wrote, The fire is running at Yarnell!
But the flames werent only heading toward Yarnell. Changing conditions would turn winds toward the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, including Chris MacKenzie, 30, and William Billy Warneke, 25, who both attended Hemet High School.
Reviewing maps, photos, interviews and other data, it appears that the 19 Hotshots aimed to drop down 1.6 miles to a bombproof safety zone at Boulder Springs Ranch.
Their plan may have been to re-engage the fire. It may have been to seek shelter. Regardless, the move meant hiking the ridge and then navigating boulder fields and chaparral while humping 35 pounds of gear, including chain saws, in triple-digit heat. Protected by nothing more than black helmets and soot-covered yellow flame-resistant shirts, the team started descending.
For nearly 30 minutes, the Yarnell Hill Fire didnt advance much on the Hotshots. But at 4:30, the area turned to hell.
Thunder exploded. Within nine minutes, a wall of roiling smoke already higher than any mountain on the planet shot up to nearly 39,000 feet. Flames moved at 16 mph. Gusts estimated at 50 mph sent a hail of black ash and burning embers.
In minutes, the wildfire burned through much of the area the Hotshots had taken nearly a half-hour to push through. But 700 yards of boulders and brush still separated the men from the ranchs safety.
At 4:39, radios crackled unintelligibly. Crowded frequencies had resulted in garbled transmissions. Then, a static-filled Hotshot voice came through: The crew needed air support. Now.
We are in front of the flaming front.
In one hour, the fire had nearly doubled in size, burning through some 2,500 acres.
With the sound of chain saws in the background, Marsh broke in: Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the bush and Ill give you a call when we are under the sh-, the shelters.
MacKenzie, Warneke and the rest of the crew started deploying their shelters. A wall of fire approached. It appears that some of the Hotshots didnt have time to climb completely inside their sacks. But it didnt matter.
The shelters reflect 95 percent of radiant heat. But aluminum foil and silica cloth are useless against convective heat from flames as well as hot gasses. As the wildfire swept over the Hotshots, temperatures exceeded 2,000 degrees. Helmets were partially melted.
While a fire-retardant air tanker searched for the crew, 19 Hotshots sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends perished.
Before the beast was controlled days later, it would burn 8,400 acres.
The safety divisions report lauded the Hotshots for staying alert, remaining calm, thinking clearly, taking decisive actions and monitoring weather.
Yet just as the exhaustive report examines the decisions of the living, it critiques the decisions of the dead. Understand, there are lessons in the Hotshots actions that could save the lives of others.
The investigation concludes that the team didnt scout out, time or mark sufficient escape routes. It notes the Hotshots didnt consider all escape routes, including dropping down to the west and connecting with Highway 89. It also says the crew didnt notify anyone about their decision to leave their black safe area and report their new route.
The confusion that surrounded the search for the crew after the entrapment and burnover, investigators state, illustrates the importance of notifying the supervisor.
But those errors are minor compared with other mistakes.
Regarding the deaths, Arizonas occupational safety division blasts state forestry officials for a complete failure to protect employees working downwind of the fire from exposure to smoke, burns and death.
The investigation declares that management also failed to re-evaluate, reprioritize and update suppression efforts.
Every firefighter at the scene, the investigation states, was exposed to those risks because of strategies that prioritized protection of non-defensible homes and pastureland over firefighter safety.
Its worth noting that the occupational safety divisions report is dramatically different from the earlier investigation by the forestry division, which gave itself a clean slate.
The judgments and decisions of the incident-management organizations managing this fire were reasonable, forestry officials say. The team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.
The safety division ruled that penalties of $25,000 will be assessed against the forestry division for the deaths of MacKenzie, Warneke, Marsh and the other Hotshots who died. But those penalties are only the beginning.
In total, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health proposed penalties totaling more than a half-million dollars.
But nothing especially money can bring back MacKenzie, Warneke and their 17 Hotshot brothers. Still, their strength and courage surrounds us.
From the ashes, we can rise up and learn.
MONDAY: Records show Arizonas Yarnell Hill Fire started in an area similar to area wildlands.
TUESDAY: Mistakes create deadly environment for the Hotshots, including two with Inland connections.
TODAY: 19 Hotshots battle wind, wilderness in a last-ditch effort to survive; management blamed.