Tag Archives: Yarnell Hill

How the West Was Burnt

“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…, those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”   ― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Darrell Willis prayed desperately. He called his wife, and then the head of the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. They prayed too.

In the background, the radio crackled pleadingly: “Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?” Over and over, but there came no answer.

Courtesy, Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Courtesy Terry Tomkins, U.S. Forest Service

Minutes before, one of nineteen young Granite Mountain Hotshots working a fire on nearby Yarnell Hill had radioed Willis, the Prescott Wildlands Fire Chief, to report that they were being overrun by flames, and were deploying their emergency fire shelters, lightweight cocoons used as a last resort by wildlands fire fighters.

Almost instantly, the eyes of the entire country were riveted on Prescott, now the scene of the most deadly wildfire disaster in several generations. What had begun the day as a routine 15-acre fire had grown to 200 hundred acres. By late afternoon, a sudden thunderstorm had shifted the winds nearly 180 degrees, sending a wall of flame into Yarnell, and over the thin line of exhausted men fighting to contain it.

Over the three weeks since the tragedy, we have mourned and prayed for the fallen, and for the nineteen families left to wipe away their tears and carry on without fathers, brothers and sons.  And finally, we have begun to ask: Why did this happen? Why were these nineteen precious lives cut short in their youth?

Helmets and boots of 19 who died on Yarnell Hill

Helmets and gear of the nineteen who died on Yarnell Hill

Of course, there are the proximate answers. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous calling. Freak storms can always cause fires to behave erratically. Maybe this-or-that measure could have reduced the danger. But what about the spike in wildfires engulfing the West these days? What could explain the almost-daily incidence of forest fires on the national news? Isn’t it time to take a serious look at the reasons for these events?  Continue reading