Hotshots' Doom Sealed by Fire's Sudden Shift

'Burn over' in Yarnell Hill fire overtook 19 firefighters

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Jul 2, 2013 7:50 AM CDT

(Newser) – The 19 firefighters killed in Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire were among "the best of the best" in their field, say peers—but that wasn't enough to protect members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew when the fire took a quick, unexpected turn. "Only Mother Nature might be able to explain" the details, says a local fire chief, but the Wall Street Journal reports that the men faced a "burn over," with flames shifting direction too quickly for the firefighters to avoid them. At the time, the men were between a pair of ridges, the Arizona Republic notes, and thunderstorms overhead combined with erratic winds and drought conditions for "explosive fire behavior," one official tells ABC News.

Up to 10 people selected from around the country will investigate the deaths and issue a report. Burn overs are among the biggest dangers for firefighters—including hotshots, who train at least 80 hours at the start of every fire season. There are some 110 such groups in the US, with about 20 members each, the Journal notes. But this team is the only one that's part of a city fire department. At 4:50pm on Sunday, the men radioed to say their fire shelters were set up, a forestry official says, per the Guardian; it was the crew's last transmission. Crews weren't able to access the area for hours. "It was too hot and smokey," says a forestry official.

Unidentified members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Ariz., pose together in this undated photo.
Unidentified members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Ariz., pose together in this undated photo.   (AP Photo/City of Prescott)
A photo of one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shot members killed fighting a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., at a makeshift memorial.
A photo of one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shot members killed fighting a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., at a makeshift memorial.   (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A wildfire destroys homes in the Glenn Ilah area near Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.
A wildfire destroys homes in the Glenn Ilah area near Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.   (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski)
A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.
A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.   (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski)
A home burns in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.
A home burns in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Yarnell, Ariz. on Sunday, June 30, 2013.   (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Story)
Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire approaches Glenn Ilah on Sunday, June 30, 2013 near Yarnell, Ariz.
Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire approaches Glenn Ilah on Sunday, June 30, 2013 near Yarnell, Ariz.   (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski)
Prescott fire chaplain Paul Jones passes flags and flowers commemorating 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots outside a memorial, Monday, July 1, 2013.
Prescott fire chaplain Paul Jones passes flags and flowers commemorating 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots outside a memorial, Monday, July 1, 2013.   (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A chain with 19 links hangs locked on the fence outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station, Monday, July 1, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz.
A chain with 19 links hangs locked on the fence outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station, Monday, July 1, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz.   (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
An aerial tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfires threatening homes near Yarnell, Ariz., Monday, July 1, 2013.
An aerial tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfires threatening homes near Yarnell, Ariz., Monday, July 1, 2013.   (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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