Fire crews mop up after the Yarnell Hill wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz. The… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Hours before the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots climbed into the parched, craggy hills where they would die, one of them woke his father with a phone call.
"We have a fire in Yarnell," said Kevin Woyjeck. "It's big and getting bigger."
The lightning-sparked wildfire outside the tiny former gold-mining town had spread to 200 acres, sweeping over deep canyons and big boulders, taking fuel from chaparral rich with oils that burn hot and fast.
Still, the 21-year-old Woyjeck, the son of a firefighter, did not sound worried.
Granite Mountain was an experienced crew, led by a supervisor old enough to be Woyjeck's father — he called the crew his kids — and who was known to turn down missions he didn't think were safe. The hotshots were supremely fit and spoke with a swagger about their ability to absorb punishment. On workouts they'd sometimes run a mile, then turn around and do 300 sit-ups and 100 pull-ups.
And this wasn't a huge fire. It was what they call a Type III, not even serious enough to call in one of the meteorologists who deploy on the big blazes that can turn deadly with a turn of the weather.
Later that day, though, the winds would shift suddenly. The sky would darken, the cool-headed supervisor would radio for help and, despite a desperate attempt to use a helicopter to douse the suddenly advancing flames , the Yarnell Hill fire would become one of the deadliest blazes in the history of fighting wildfires.
None of this seemed possible when Woyjeck spoke to his father at 6:45 a.m. June 30. The Prescott-based crew had fought fires across the West, and now it would tackle one in its own backyard.
Woyjeck promised his father he would call that night.
As the fire advanced that morning, west of Arizona Highway 89 between Yarnell and Peeples Valley, other members of the hotshots crew, 20 men strong, were texting home about the task ahead.
"I think I'm going to be out here a while on this one," Andrew Ashcraft, 29, a father of four, wrote to his wife. He added later: "It's getting really wild out here — Peeples Valley is trying to burn down."
The crew established a safety zone at a large ranch near Yarnell, authorities said, with a bulldozed path leading to it. If the fire took a nasty turn, they expected to retreat there.
At 8 a.m., Yarnell's retired fire chief, Peter Andersen, watched from his home in the town's Glen Ilah subdivision as one of the hotshots' squarish transport trucks, called buggies, rumbled toward the blaze.
Andersen climbed a hill and saw air tankers drop loads of slurry onto the fire. He figured the crews had it under control.
Then, at 1 p.m., with temperatures in triple digits, came a knock on his door. Authorities were urging residents to evacuate.
"From what?" he said.
Just 24 minutes later, hotshot crewman Wade Parker, 22, sent his mother a text.
"We're on a 500-acre fire in Yarnell," Parker wrote. "Temps supposed to get up to 116. I gotta pretty good headache. Pray for me."
Parker was a Prescott native and fireman's son who had ridden in the back seat of his father's fire truck as a child. He was engaged to be married Oct. 19.
Like others on the hotshot crew, so named because such teams descend on the hottest part of a fast-moving fire, Parker wore heavy protective gear and lugged 50 pounds of equipment. Temperatures peaked that day at 103 degrees.
At 2:05 p.m., the National Weather Service in Flagstaff called the Yarnell Hill fire dispatch center to warn of an approaching thunderstorm. Prescott got some rain, but not the fire zone.
"We could really use a little rain down here," Ashcraft texted his family at 3:19.
Eleven minutes later, the weather service sent out another thunderstorm warning.
At 4:04 p.m., Parker sent his mother a photograph from his perch on a rocky ridgeline. Below, a massive wall of gray smoke was racing toward the town.
"This thing is running straight for yarnel. jus starting to evac. you can see fire on the left town on right. DO NOT POST THIS ON FACEBOOK OR ANY OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA DEAL!!!!" He didn't want to start a panic.
Around this time, Ashcraft's wife, Juliann, sent him another text. She was worried because she hadn't heard from him in a while: "Are you sleeping down there?"
Sometime after 4 p.m., as the thunderstorm raged overhead, the wind did two dangerous things. It reversed course and blew north-northeast. It also doubled in speed to 26 miles per hour. Rain evaporated before it hit the earth.
Scrambling across granite hills, among the pinyon pine and thick underbrush, the 19 hotshots were carving a fire break to stop the flames' surge toward the town.
A 20th crewman, Brendan McDonough, 21, was positioned nearby as a lookout.