Fire brewed into storm, turned tragic in Arizona

19 elite firefighters died one week ago when a wildfire blew over them

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photoAndrew Ashcraft Killed while fighting wildfire in Arizona

YARNELL, Ariz. -- Juliann Ashcraft had just put the kids down for a nap when her cellphone buzzed. It was a text from Andrew, her husband of seven years and, still, her best friend.

"This is my lunch spot," he wrote beneath a photo of hard-hatted firefighters sitting on boulders, watching smoke rise on the horizon. "Too bad lunch was an MRE," he concluded.

It was 2:16 p.m. June 30.

That Sunday morning, Ashcraft and the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had been deployed to the ranching community of Yarnell to fight yet another wildfire. The crew had barely gotten home from a different blaze when word came that the team was needed again.

"I think I will be down there for a while on this one," 29-year-old Ashcraft had told his wife via text.

The father of four always seized every opportunity to call or text Juliann while out on a job -- even if it meant hiking to the top of a mountain to get a signal. Still, during the summer wildfire season, it was not unusual for the couple to go weeks on end without any communication. This day, so far, had been different.

That afternoon, Juliann texted to report that it was raining at their house in nearby Prescott. She told her husband how much she wished he could be there, watching the drops fall with her and the kids.

"We could really use some rain over here," he replied.

With that, their exchanges stopped. Thanks to the photo, Juliann could at least picture where Andrew was. But while it offered some comfort, the image was also foreboding. Off in the distance, from behind a ridge line, billowed a sickly, blackish-brown plume -- spreading like a bruise across the graying sky.


photoThe deadly wildfire burns homes June 30 in Yarnell, Ariz.

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The blaze had ignited two days earlier with a lightning strike in the Date Creek Mountains above Yarnell. Once known as "Rich Hill" for the acres of gold nuggets discovered by prospectors in the 1860s, the town is 80 miles northwest of Phoenix at 4,800 feet above sea level, its motto "Where the Desert Breeze Meets the Mountain Air."

The slopes that surround the community are laden with manzanita, evergreen, mountain mahogany and oak. Though next-door to national forestland that regularly sees fire activity, this particular area had not burned in some 40 years and was deep into a drought.

Still, at first, officials determined this small blaze posed no immediate threat to Yarnell's 700 residents.

Around 10 a.m. Saturday, the Arizona State Forestry Division called in two air tankers, a helicopter, some fire engines and a couple of hand crews. By nightfall, the fire was just 15 acres, though the town fire department warned residents: "Be on high alert if the wind changes direction."

Overnight, the blaze grew to 200 acres.

Around 6 a.m., Darrell Willis, chief of the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Fire Division, was loading his truck with containers of eggs, sausage, potatoes and fruit for the crews when his phone rang. It was Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who were based out of Willis' department.

"Hey, chief," Marsh said. "We're coming down to the fire."

Marsh and Willis had worked together for years, and were close friends as well as colleagues.

Willis gave Marsh the rundown: Active fire. Lots of homes potentially at risk.

"It's one of those days," he warned.

Then Willis ended the conversation the way he does anytime he's speaking to a firefighter.

"Be safe," he told Marsh.


photoBrendan McDonough Hotshots' lookout

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By 9:30 a.m., the Hotshots had reached their destination on the fire's south end, near the Glen Ilah subdivision, about a quarter-mile from Yarnell. The area had already been bulldozed, so the crew used chain saws, axes and other gear to build a line between the blaze and the town in case the winds changed and blew flames their way. Following standard procedure, they also mapped out an escape route.

Most of the fire activity was on the north end of the blaze. But in rugged hills like those where the Hotshots were working, any thunder activity or downdrafts can shift winds and shoot flames in all directions, fire experts say.

For that reason, each crew always has at least one member serving as a lookout, stationed where he can watch the fire's behavior and radio changes in conditions to the team.

That Sunday, Granite Mountain Hotshot Brendan McDonough was the eyes for the other 19 -- assigned to a nearby hillside to report to the crew and keep watch on "trigger points," locations that when reached or crossed by a fire dictate a move to safer ground.

As it approached 5 p.m., the winds were coming from the north at 26 mph, with gusts to 43 mph.

From his lookout post, McDonough saw the shift in winds and the fire suddenly coming toward him. He radioed down to his crewmates, telling them his trigger point had been reached, and that he was heading for safe ground.

As a Prescott fire official would later recount, McDonough told his team to contact him on the radio if they needed anything. Then he rode away with a firefighter from another Hotshot team. When last he looked, McDonough's lookout position had already burned over in the flames.

At 4:47 p.m., Eric Marsh did radio to fire commanders, and his message was utterly terrifying. The 19 remaining Hotshots were deploying their emergency fire shelters -- lightweight cocoons made of reflective material intended as a firefighter's last resort.

Willis, the Prescott wildland fire chief, was in his pickup outside Yarnell, listening to the Hotshots' tactical frequency, when he heard a garbled message from Marsh that he couldn't quite make out. Then his cellphone rang.

"Did you hear that?" a supervisor asked him. All Willis could think was, "Not those guys." His guys.

Then he began to pray.

Over and over again, the radio crackled with a constant, heartbreaking summons:

"Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?"

Maybe, thought Willis, they're just out of radio contact. Maybe, he hoped, his friends would walk out of that smoke at any minute.

Helicopters circled in an attempt to douse the flames. But the smoke was so thick, crews could only guess where to drop their loads.

As time wore on, Willis got back on the phone. He called his wife first, and then the head of the Prescott Fire Department.

He asked them to start praying, too.


Back in Prescott, Juliann Ashcraft was watching television with her children -- Ryder, 6; Shiloh, 4; Tate Andrew, 2; and Choice, 1.

Andrew Ashcraft was only in his third season with the Hotshots, but he'd been working toward the job for years. As a teenager, he attended fire camps. In high school, he'd spend hours after classes studying fire science.

Andrew and Juliann were still a playful couple. When one stepped outside the house for something, the other would lock the door and not open it until the exiled party performed a dance in front of the living room window.

When Andrew was home, he was the center of the family. He insisted on tucking the children in each night and leading them in their prayers. And when he was away, Juliann did her best to keep up their routines -- including their daily family ritual of taking turns talking about their happiest moment of the day, and their saddest.

About 7 p.m., a television announcer came on with the report: A Hotshot crew had been overrun near Yarnell. Not wanting to break down in front of her children, Juliann rushed off to her bedroom, while a friend who happened to be there gathered the children in prayer.


photoColleen Turbyfill, mother of Travis Turbyfill who was a member of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew that were killed battling a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., Sunday talks about her son on Thursday, July 4, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz. The elite crew of firefighters were overtaken by the out-of-control blaze as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

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A couple of miles away, Colleen Turbyfill was scanning Facebook when a news alert popped up about a Hotshot crew. Her stepson, Travis, was a member of the Granite Mountain team.

He'd been just 4 years old when he literally burst into her life. She was eating pizza with friends when the boy rushed up to her and asked if she could sew a button back on his shirt.

In 1990, she married Travis' father and adopted the precocious little boy who, even then, knew what he wanted to be. When Travis was in kindergarten, he drew a picture of a fire truck and titled it, "When I grow up."

"I want to be a fire man," he wrote. "I will fire fight the fires."

Strangely, he did not draw the typical red hook-and-ladder truck, but a pale green vehicle that closely resembles the type the Granite Mountain crew used.

Colleen had last seen Travis just days before, when he returned from working another blaze. That fire had threatened her own parents' home nearby. For the first time, the danger seemed too close.

"I know that you love it," she told him. "But I hate it now."

He had been saying all season that this would be his last as a Hotshot. Still dressed in his fire gear and reeking of smoke, he wrapped Colleen in a bear hug and told her not to worry.

"We've got a great crew," the 27-year-old father of two young girls said. "I love what I do, and we're going to be OK." Now she wondered if that were true. At 7:25 p.m., Colleen grabbed her phone and texted Travis' wife, Stephanie.

"Do you know where Travis is?"

"Yarnell," her daughter-in-law replied. "Haven't heard from him all day."

At 7:28, Colleen typed: "Heard there is a crew trapped surrounded by fire. They were ok but no way out. Worried sick. If you hear anything please let me know."

"How did you hear that?" Stephanie replied. "News??"

At 7:33, Colleen wrote back. "19 fatalities. Hot shots involved"


photoJuliann Ashcraft, left, the widow of Andrew Ashcraft, sits by a memorial for the fallen firefighters in front of Prescott Fire Station 7 on July 1.

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At first, no one knew who the lone survivor was. Each man's family prayed that their son-husband-brother had been the lucky one.

Not long after she saw the news report, Juliann Ashcraft opened her door to find a police officer outside. Andrew had not made it.

With family and friends to look after the children, she headed to Prescott's Mile High Middle School to grieve with other families. There, officials gave some details of what had happened. They talked about a freak storm, and said the men appeared to have done everything by the book.

Juliann found some comfort in that, and also in learning that her husband and his friends were never left alone.

Willis and three other men sat vigil with the firefighters all night, until the bodies were taken the next morning to a medical examiner's office. Nineteen American flags were brought, one to be draped over each man's body.


photoMembers of a fire crew pay their respects Thursday at a memorial to 19 fallen firefighters outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station in Prescott, Ariz.

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A week later, the fire these men died fighting burns on, although it is almost fully contained. It claimed property as well as lives, destroying more than 100 homes.

Across from the Granite Mountain crew's headquarters in downtown Prescott, a chain-link fence has become a shrine. Teddy bears, homemade banners, flower arrangements and fire department T-shirts from all over the country bake in the brutal summer sun.

Jennifer Parks of Phoenix came on the Fourth of July with her sons Jake, 6, and Zak, 4. Zak stopped at a circle of tiny toy firetrucks and pointed to one that looked like one of his own back home.

"I have one I want to bring," he told his mom.

One of the family's good friends is a fire chief back in Phoenix. The boys have visited stations and gotten to climb on the engines.

"I want to be a fireman," Zak said. Then in the next breath he added, "I want to be Batman."

A few feet away, someone had placed a sign that read, "Real Heroes Don't Wear Capes." Zak's mother smiled.