The show must go on — and so it was that Prescott celebrated Independence Day as usual last week, with parades and what it bills as “The Oldest Rodeo in the World,” first held in 1887. This year, however, the festivities in the one-time frontier town in Arizona’s high desert were darkened by tragedy. Just four days earlier, 19 of the town’s finest young men had died in the deadliest single incident for US firefighters since the New York terrorist attacks of 9/11.
They were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots — part of the local fire department, to be sure, but one of 100 Hotshot teams across the country, engaged in the arduous and highly skilled work of bringing wildfires under control. Most were in their 20s; many had started families. All were resilient and super-fit, capable of running 10 miles in their boots while carrying a 40lb pack. But last Sunday afternoon, those skills were not enough to save them.
The unit was combating a blaze near Yarnell, a few miles south of Prescott. It appeared no big deal, a fire covering a mere dozen square miles or so. But at around four in the afternoon a thunderstorm struck, with lightning and viciously swirling winds. In an instant a towering wall of flame raced towards the Granite Mountain Hotshots, leaving them with no way to escape.
According to post-mortem reports, they perished from burns, carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, in some cases a combination of all three. There was just one survivor, a lookout posted a mile away who gave a warning but was forced to leave as the blaze approached. A few minutes later the place where he was standing had been incinerated as well.
Wildfires are part of the eco-cycle across vast swathes of the US. In moderation they are beneficial, clearing dead wood and undergrowth, helping coniferous forests to regenerate by heating cones to the point where they germinate. They are associated above all with the semi-arid upland and mountain tracts of the West — Arizona, California, Nevada, Colourado and the like — but oddly, the very worst in American history occurred in usually temperate Wisconsin, on the shores of the Great Lakes.
Few know about the great Peshtigo storm on the night of 8-9 October 1871, when, after a dry and scorching summer, lightning set off an inferno that incinerated Peshtigo and a nearby town within two hours, killing at least 1,500 people. Survivors’ accounts suggest what happened was akin to the man-made firestorms inflicted by the Allies on Dresden and Tokyo in the Second World War, fuelled by storm-force winds created by the intensity of the fire.
Compared with Peshtigo, which devoured 1.2 million acres of land (almost 1,900 square miles), the Yarnell disaster was small beer in geographical terms. But the result for anyone close was the same. The dynamics of wildfires are unpredictable and lethal — never more so than in an Arizonan summer cocktail of bone-dry conditions, rugged terrain and triple-digit temperatures. Throw in a storm generating fierce “outflow” winds that veer in any direction, and anything can happen.
Nothing suggests that standard safety rules were broken. Photos texted by the firefighters before the calamity show they were cutting containment lines along the edges of the fire — not, far more dangerously, directly across its path. It seemed “innocuous, a little ol’ puff of smoke,” Jim Paxon, an expert in wildfire management, told the Arizona Republic newspaper.