Shifting Wildfires: Mourning Arizona's Best and Bravest

07/03/2013 02:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"We are the land of the free because of the brave," announced Frank Ayers, chancellor of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. He was speaking at the beginning of yesterday's memorial service for the 19 firefighters killed on Sunday in the devastating Yarnell Hill fire, which began Friday in the nearby town of Yarnell when lightning struck parched ground and spread from 20 acres to 2,000 acres in a matter of hours. "I present to you: the brave," Ayers said, gesturing to the back of the room.

There a cluster of Prescott firefighters stood stone-facedly mourning their fallen comrades. But by the end of the ceremony, when they were being called to the front of the capacity crowd in the university's gymnasium, they could no longer remain stoic. Dozens of them clutched at one another in a scrum, their tear-stained faces buried in one another's shoulders. A few wailed with grief.

Most of them wore t-shirts emblazoned with the logo of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the team-within-a-team of elite Prescott firefighters charged with battling the very worst wildfires in the region. All but one of the 20-man crew died on Sunday. The hotshots had been in the midst of celebrating their 10-year anniversary when the Yarnell Hill fire trapped them in a "burn over," as a sudden strong shift of the wind pushed the blaze onto their position. The wording on the backs of the t-shirts proclaimed: "10 years of living the dream."

Don Devendorf, a division chief and fire marshal with the Prescott Fire Department, had been at an amusement park with his family when he learned that the Granite Mountain crew -- the first in the nation formed as part of a city fire department -- had been overtaken by the flames. "I asked how many fatalities," he told the mourners at the gym. "The answer was all of them."

The men radioed Sunday afternoon that they were in trouble, and a helicopter pilot reported witnessing them deploying their fire shelters. Smoke and flames prevented anyone from learning their fate until rescuers discovered the bodies, some still inside their shelters.

Dozens of questions surround the nightmare that wiped out the crew, but most of these won't be answered for weeks, assuming that answers ever emerge. One of the most troubling is whether the deaths of these men is a harbinger of fiercer, deadlier fires to come in the "new normal" being generated by climate change (see "Climate Change Fuels the Perfect Firestorm") -- and, if so, whether it means that firefighters will be facing increasing risks as the Southwest continues to warm.

As a former firefighter myself, I also had to wonder whether a breakdown in the basic safety protocols that govern the fighting of these fires might have been to blame. Such measures require that firefighters vigilantly monitor the weather, establish lookouts to monitor the fire's progress, and create escape routes and safety zones. But when I spoke to Devendorf after the ceremony, he was resolute on this matter: "I know they were doing it right," he told me. When it comes to wildland firefighting, hotshots are the equivalent of the U.S. Army Special Forces, and the fire marshal was absolutely certain they had followed their training to the letter. "I know our guys were spinning weather," he said, describing the device firefighters swing through the air to measure relative humidity. "I know they had posted a lookout. I know they had a secure safety zone. It was a freak of nature."

That terrifying freak of nature could become less freakish. Temperature increases in the West are already resulting in more wildfires, according to a draft of the National Climate Assessment released earlier this year. The Yarnell Hill fire resulted from a historic heat wave that's currently crushing the Southwest, all part of a trend that, according to Climate Central, has made Arizona the fastest warming state in the nation. The monsoons that routinely blow into Arizona in June and July bring erratic winds and lightning -- but often they bring no rain. Sunday's monsoon came in strong and dry. Steve Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University and the nation's preeminent fire historian, lives about 50 miles from the wildfire. He had seen the storm clouds amassing, and later he had to wonder whether the dry monsoon conditions had contributed to the tragic wind shift.

Regardless of what conclusions the investigation into this tragedy yields, the people of Prescott know that their hotshots made a difference. "Those folks really saved the town [of Yarnell]," Chip Davis, chairman of Prescott's board of supervisors told those in attendance at yesterday's memorial. "I mean, the town was absolutely, positively minutes from being demolished." Of about 300 homes in Yarnell, 50 were destroyed on Sunday.

Even so, by the time the ceremony was over, the fire had grown to be ten times larger than it had been the day before. As I post this dispatch on Tuesday afternoon, the Yarnell Hill fire has spread to more than 8,300 acres -- and is zero percent contained.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.