Yarnell HIll Fire: Visit to fateful site offers few answers - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Yarnell HIll Fire: Visit to fateful site offers few answers

A flagpole sits near the area where 19 Prescott firefighters died June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. (Source: CBS 5 News) A flagpole sits near the area where 19 Prescott firefighters died June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Visitors are asked to touch this Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt at the site as a sign of respect for the fallen firefighters. (Source: CBS 5 News) Visitors are asked to touch this Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt at the site as a sign of respect for the fallen firefighters. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Prescott Fire Division Chief Darrell Willis says he believes the firefighters left the safety of an already burned area to protect a nearby ranch. (Source: CBS 5 News) Prescott Fire Division Chief Darrell Willis says he believes the firefighters left the safety of an already burned area to protect a nearby ranch. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Veteran firefighter Jim Paxon called the Yarnell Hill Fire a "tsunami." (Source: CBS 5 News) Veteran firefighter Jim Paxon called the Yarnell Hill Fire a "tsunami." (Source: CBS 5 News)
YARNELL, AZ (CBS5) -

Black stumps, scorched ground and charred boulders leave the impression this area is no different than any other left blackened by an Arizona wildfire.

But in an almost silent box canyon west of the town of Yarnell stands a flagpole with Old Glory slowly waving in the breeze. A T-shirt is stretched across a blistered cactus. And a fence surrounds the ground now considered hallowed ground.

It's the slope where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives June 30 when they were overtaken by wind-angered flames from the Yarnell Hill Fire.

"This is exactly the ground that they died on," said Prescott Fire Division Chief Darrell Willis.

Willis was the fire chief who started the Granite Mountain Hotshots more than a decade ago.

On Tuesday, he talked about how they came to their fiery end.

He said he believes the Hotshots dropped down the steep walls, leaving safety behind in order to save a nearby ranch.

"They were in a safe location," he explained. But they didn't stay long.

Earlier in the day, they walked a nearby ridge.

By 4 p.m., the weather had turned and the fire was erupting, traveling an estimated 20 feet per second.

The Hotshots, now referred to as the Prescott 19, originally retreated into a previously burned location called the "black," a safe area where the tinder-dry fuel had already burned the ground black.

But they made the choice to leave.

"It was a decision they made at that time and they thought it was the best outcome," Willis said.

Why they decided to leave the relative safety of the "black" and end up in the valley that would eventually take their lives is the source of a lot of speculation.

The crew's former boss believes they were trying to save a nearby ranch.

"They were moving down to protect this house. That's my theory on it," Willis said.

But a satellite image of that ranch shows it was already fire-proofed, the brush around it cleared away.

"I don't have the answers," said veteran firefighter Jim Paxon.

Paxon told CBS 5 News it could have been that the Hotshots just thought they'd be safer if they made it to the ranch.

"If where you are is not a truly safe zone, then you have to go to where your chances are better," Paxon said

In this situation, the firefighters found themselves at the bottom of a steep box canyon - walls around them, the raging fire in front.

Radio communications and evidence at the scene showed they fought until the end.

"They started to cut out a safety zone with their saws," Willis said.

Satellite images show just how green the canyon was, full of fuel that created the fatal onslaught of fire.

When the firefighters first laid eyes on this valley, it looked a lot different. They were atop that ridge. No fire in sight.

It's hard to imagine that the valley was ever filled with so many trees and so much brush. Today, it resembles a moonscape, an area that burned like a blast furnace.

"It was a tsunami," Paxon said.

Behind the fence easily seen from U.S. Highway 89 are the very spots where the Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed their fire shelters in a last-ditch effort to save their lives.

Every visitor is asked to touch the Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt that stretches across the burned cactus as they arrive at the site as a solemn tribute to the Prescott 19.

The fire left questions that might never be answered.

"Basically the answers of why they did and what they did died with the crew," Paxon said.

Some additional details could be learned around the beginning of September, when the first part of the official investigation is set for release.

"You can call it an accident," Willis said. "But I just say God had a different plan for the crew at this time."

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

  • Trending StoriesTrending StoriesMore>>

  • Station: Video shows nurses laughing as 89-year-old dies

    Station: Video shows nurses laughing as 89-year-old dies

    Friday, November 17 2017 5:11 PM EST2017-11-17 22:11:09 GMT
    Sunday, November 19 2017 1:41 PM EST2017-11-19 18:41:48 GMT

    An Atlanta television station says video secretly recorded in a nursing home in 2014 shows nurses laughing while they try to start an oxygen machine and an 89-year-old World War II veteran dies.

    More >>

    An Atlanta television station says video secretly recorded in a nursing home in 2014 shows nurses laughing while they try to start an oxygen machine and an 89-year-old World War II veteran dies.

    More >>
  • Trump says he should have left UCLA players in Chinese jail

    Trump says he should have left UCLA players in Chinese jail

    Sunday, November 19 2017 1:33 PM EST2017-11-19 18:33:58 GMT
    Sunday, November 19 2017 4:31 PM EST2017-11-19 21:31:56 GMT

    After UCLA player's father minimized President Donald Trump's involvement in winning players' release from China, Trump tweets, "I should have left them in jail!".

    More >>

    After UCLA player's father minimized President Donald Trump's involvement in winning players' release from China, Trump tweets, "I should have left them in jail!".

    More >>
  • Woman convicted in hair weave killings collapses as guilty verdict read

    Woman convicted in hair weave killings collapses as guilty verdict read

    Saturday, November 18 2017 8:09 AM EST2017-11-18 13:09:51 GMT
    Shelby Isaac (Source: WMC Action News 5)Shelby Isaac (Source: WMC Action News 5)

    Shelby Isaac was found guilty on two counts of second-degree murder in the shooting and killing E.J. Tate, his girlfriend Edwina Thomas, and their unborn child in January 2016. 

    More >>

    Shelby Isaac was found guilty on two counts of second-degree murder in the shooting and killing E.J. Tate, his girlfriend Edwina Thomas, and their unborn child in January 2016. 

    More >>
Powered by Frankly