Here’s why Arizona’s deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire won’t be forgotten
Jun 30, 2023, 10:02 AM
It was one of the deadliest wildland fires ever in the U.S., killing 19 members of an elite central Arizona firefighting crew in 2013 after flames trapped them in a brush-choked canyon.
The city of Prescott and the neighboring town of Yarnell are expected to honor the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots on Friday with public events. Lew Theokas, who lost his grandson, 27-year-old Garret Zuppiger, said it’s still tough for him to talk about the Yarnell Hill Fire a decade later.
“He was my only grandson and only grandchild,” said Theokas, who was with his wife in Oklahoma the day he lost his grandson. “We were on an RV trip and were going to be back in town in two days. I talked to Garret that morning.”
How did the Yarnell Hill Fire start?
When the fire started, dry lightning had struck a patch of vegetation in steep, mountainous terrain and ignited the fire high on a ridge west of Yarnell, which hadn’t experienced a wildfire in more than 45 years.
Two days later, the Hotshots were battling the wildfire in a box canyon when the winds suddenly shifted and the flames rapidly raced toward them. The 19 men tried to deploy emergency shelters: tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from the flames and heat.
The gusty, hot winds caused the fire to intensify to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,093 degrees Celsius) and cut off the firefighters’ escape route, killing the men, authorities said.
The only surviving crew member, Brendan McDonough, was posted away from the group as a lookout when the flames overtook the other Hotshots. McDonough is set to read the same prayer he recited at the memorial service for the Hotspots that drew people from around the world, including then-Vice President Joe Biden.
The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest wildland fire since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles that killed 29 firefighters, and the largest loss of life for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Yarnell fire charred more than 13 square miles and destroyed 127 buildings.
What led to the Granite Mountain Hotshot deaths?
Following a three-month investigation, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management said it found no evidence of negligence or recklessness by the firefighters.
The investigation cited some radio communication problems due to heavy radio traffic and some radios not being programmed with appropriate tone guards.
The Industrial Commission of Arizona, which oversees workplace safety, fined the forestry division $559,000 for not pulling out the Hotshots before the tragedy.
John Truett, an Arizona state fire management officer, said advances in technology have helped firefighters since then.
“We have GPS and satellites and more robust communications,” Truett said. “We didn’t know where the firefighters were. Everybody was scrambling at that time.”
Theokas, a 12-year veteran of the Peeples Valley Fire District just north of Yarnell, said his district formed a wildfire division in the wake of the tragedy and increased the amount of equipment to fight wildland fires. In recent years, crews have cleared thick shrubs and brush to remove the fuel creating the most aggressive fire behavior and protect homes and other structures.
A 9-foot photo at the Yarnell Hill Fire Memorial Park shows the Granite Mountain Hotshots posing in a human pyramid. Fourteen of the firefighters were in their 20s.
“Living in the community and going by the memorial site at the park, it’s never far from your mind,” Theokas said. “Those boys were all cut from the same cloth. That photo of the boys was made into a plate of stainless steel. It will never fade, and you will always see them together.”
Earlier this month, Yarnell held a memorial run and opened a commemorative exhibit of paintings, photographs, poetry and mementoes salvaged from the fire.
How are fallen firefighters being honored 10 years later?
On Friday, a commemoration team is expected to host a public memorial to honor the firefighters. Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs is scheduled to speak at an event at the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, along with other dignitaries, where the local honor guard will ring 19 bell tolls.
The tragedy pervades the community, even a decade later, said Grey Stafford, an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and part-time emergency medical responder for the Peeples Valley Fire District.
“Life is normal, but that event is always present like a low-hanging cloud,” said Stafford, a newer resident who planned to attend the Yarnell memorial service. “The legacy of the Yarnell fire remains and extends beyond Yarnell to surrounding communities like Peeples Valley and others whose residents lost friends, family members, colleagues, not to mention homes, livelihoods and other property.”
Theokas also expected to be at the event, even though he said it still triggers a heartache.
“I just turned 71. I don’t have my grandson,” he said. “I tell all my friends who have grandchildren that I envy them in that part of their lives.”