PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Shortly before flames engulfed his comrades, the Hotshot firefighters’ look-out radioed his team that the blaze had shifted direction with the wind and that he was fleeing for safety.
The harrowing experience of the elite crew’s lone survivor was detailed Tuesday by a Prescott fire official, who defended his department’s actions in the tragedy that killed 19 firefighters.
The deaths raised questions over whether the crew should have been pulled out much earlier and if standard precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions. Investigators will examine what caused the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11.
Violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the tiny town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team.
Brendan McDonough was assigned to give a “heads-up on the hillside” for the team on that fateful afternoon. He notified the crew of the changing conditions before leaving his post, said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman who relayed McDonough’s story at a news conference.
“He did exactly what he was supposed to,” Ward said of McDonough, who was in his third season with the unit.
Ward did not address how the 19 others responded after McDonough’s warning or how much time they had to act.
Official standards say fire crews battling a wildfire should identify escape routes and safe zones and that crews should pay attention to weather forecasts and post lookouts.
The U.S. Forest Service adopted the guidelines after 14 firefighters died in 1994 on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain. Investigators uncovered numerous errors in how that blaze was fought.
The Hotshot team from Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chain saws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel. But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.
Weather reports from around the time of the firefighter deaths show how volatile the wind became.
At 4 p.m., the wind was blowing out of the southwest, but one hour later, it had switched to the exact opposite direction and dramatically increased in speed. It was gusting at 22 mph at 4 p.m. but was at 41 mph by 5 p.m.
“What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back and trapped them,” said Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo.