On June 28, 2013, a lightning strike outside the town of Yarnell, Arizona, sparked the Yarnell Hill Fire. On June 30, strong winds picked up and, aided by a long drought and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the wildfire began to spread rapidly.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were a 20-man wildland firefighting crew based out of Prescott, Arizona, 30 miles from Yarnell. When the fire began to threaten nearby towns, the Granite Mountain Hotshots and several other fire crews were deployed to contain the flames.
In the late afternoon, the fire began to shift directions, taking a deadly turn. The crew’s lookout was ordered to retreat back and abandon his position to move their vehicles to a safer location. Without their lookout, the remaining 19 members of the fire crew were unable to see that the fire’s shifting direction had cut them off from the designated safe zones and that they had nowhere to retreat to. Helicopters attempted to assist from above, but the thick smoke obstructed visibility.
Surrounded by steep slopes on three sides and flames racing to them on the other, the trapped members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots did the only thing they still could do: use their tools to create a small clearing in the brush, deploy their emergency fire shelters, and hope for the best.
An hour and a half later, a helicopter was finally able to reach the location of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Tragically, it was too late. All 19 firefighters at the scene had perished.
The Yarnell Hill Fire was 100 percent contained on July 10. It burned more than 8,000 acres and caused $900 million in damage. It was also the deadliest wildfire to United States firefighters since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire and the sixth deadliest disaster to U.S. firefighters overall.
In 2014, the state of Arizona purchased 320 acres from the federal government to create a memorial park dedicated to the firefighters who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire. In 2016, the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park opened. A 3.5-mile trail climbs up the Weaver Mountains before descending a steep slope to the site of the memorial at the location where the 19 firefighters died.
The site is marked by 19 rock gabions held together in a circle. The crosses in the center of the circle mark the spots of the firefighters’ deaths. Plaques to each of the firefighters line the trail, embedded into boulders.
Know Before You Go
The Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park is open year-round and admission is free. Be warned that it is a strenuous seven-mile round-trip hike to and from the site of the memorial. There is no water and very little shade available along the trail, and the only restroom facilities are in the parking area.