It was already getting hot the morning of June 30, 2013, when 20 men of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots moved out to fight a wildfire near the former gold-rush town of Yarnell, AZ.
Sean Misner, 26, a Santa Ynez Valley Union High School graduate, kissed his pregnant wife, Amanda, goodbye. She would never see him alive again.
The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, which lost 19 men that day, is told in the Sony film Only the Brave, starring Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin. It’s due to be released on October 20.
Misner, from a family of Santa Barbara–area firefighters, played football in high school, small but determined at several positions and known as “a team player.”
The Hotshots, attached to the Prescott Fire Department, had developed a tight camaraderie and were well experienced in fighting wildfires. Yarnell, 80 miles north of Phoenix, had only about 700 residents, most of whom had already evacuated the town.
A lightning strike had touched off the blaze two days earlier on federal Bureau of Land Management acreage. A long drought had seared the land, and temperatures that day soared to 101 degrees.
The Hotshots sweated through the day and had gathered on what was considered a safe spot on a ridgetop. Then strong winds kicked up, pushing the blaze from 300 acres to eventually over 2,000. By July 1, it had grown to over 8,300.
According to investigators, the day had gone according to routine. Then, for some reason, the team moved down the mountainside, apparently toward a ranch property identified as a safety zone. But they found themselves trapped when a fierce thunderstorm and high winds caught them in a wall of flames. Back at the command center, officials were unaware of the move. Investigators blamed improperly programmed radios and a 30-minute communications blackout just before flames engulfed the Hotshots.
Trapped, the men crawled into their tent-like emergency shelters. But all 19 died. The only member of the team to survive was Brendan McDonough, the lookout who was stationed some distance away and who was rescued by another team driving by.
Members of the Blue Ridge Hotshots tried to rescue the Granite Mountain team but were driven back by the intense heat and flames.
The Arizona State Forestry Division released a report that found no evidence of recklessness or negligence. It also revealed that an air tanker carrying fire retardant was directly overhead as the firefighters died.
But the Arizona state Industrial Commission later issued a stinging rebuke to the Forestry Division, blaming state fire officials, saying they knowingly put protection of property ahead of safety and should have pulled crews out earlier.
The commission also found that state officials did not respond to a request the night before for two safety officers, who were considered key positions in large firefighting efforts.
The commission’s investigator, Marshall Krotenberg, said the officials should have pulled the Hotshots out an hour before the thunderstorm hit. “The storm was anticipated; it was forecast; everybody knew it,” he told the commission. “But there was no plan to move people out of the way.”
Senior fire managers reportedly had already determined that the town was indefensible. More than 120 Yarnell homes were destroyed and two in nearby Peeples Valley.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, it was the greatest loss of life of firefighters in a wildfire since 1933 and the greatest loss of life of firefighters since the September 2011 attacks.
Then-governor Jan Brewer said, “This is the darkest day as I can remember.” Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park is a 2.85-mile path leading from a parking area on Highway 89 to an observation deck overlooking the town of Yarnell and the site where the Hotshots made their last stand. Chains link 19 markers, representing their unity.
Two months after the fire, Amanda Misner gave birth to a boy, Sean Jaxon.
For more information about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, visit azstateparks.com/hotshots.