Ian Dunbar has been watching local and national news on the tragedy in Yarnell, where 19 firefighters from Prescott’s elite Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew lost their lives Sunday.
Dunbar, captain of Sun City West Fire Department Station 101, said two wildland firefighters — Capt. Darby Starr and firefighter Coy Boggler from Sun City West, along with one firefighter each from Sun City and Peoria — have been in Yarnell since the weekend as a brush team on the SCW Fire Department Station 103 brush truck.
Dunbar said he didn’t know the proximity of the brush team to where the hotshot crew was killed. “It’s just too much to comprehend,” he said of “the greatest loss of firefighters since 9/11.”
A wildland firefighter with 30 years experience, Tim Van Scoter, assistant chief with the Sun City West Fire District, was in California this past weekend when he heard the news.
He said the SCW crew was in the same area in Yarnell, although not working directly with the hotshots. They said “the winds shifted, and everybody was ordered to get out of the area.” They packed up and drove out.
“It’s devastating and heartbreaking for everybody,” Van Scoter said. “This team is different than most teams,” because they’re sponsored by the Prescott Fire Department. “Almost every other hotshot team in the country is either federal or state level.”
There are few where a local city staffs and maintains a wildland crew. “In fact, I think this was the first one,” he said.
Van Scoter said it would be speculation to know exactly what occurred Sunday. “When crews go into an area like that, they identify safety zones, and they identify escape routes.”
When the wind shifts direction or the fire behavior changes, the crews retreat back through their escape routes to their safety zones to wait it out.
“If they’re using their fire shelters,” either they weren’t able to get through their escape routes or “the safety zone became untenable,” Van Scoter said.
The fire shelters used by the hotshots are designed to reflect radiant heat but are not designed for direct contact with flames.
Firefighters can go their whole careers without deploying their shelters, and Van Scoter said, “it has to be pretty bad for them to do that.”
Dunbar said the fire shelters the wildland firefighters use are a last resort. He said firefighters climb into it “almost like a sleeping bag.”
“You wrap yourself up in it, like a nice tight blanket,” Dunbar said, adding that a five- to 10- minute burn is not survivable. “They’re absolutely designed for last chance to try to save yourself.”
Van Scoter, who knows the Yarnell area and has trained firefighters there, said the boulders, rocks, ravines, “6- to 8-foot high brush” and trees make outrunning a wind-aided fire in the region impossible. It’s not like “running across the field,” he said.
The 19 firefighters who were driven from Yarnell and along Grand Avenue into Phoenix Monday also were remembered at the Recreation Centers of Sun City West meeting.
“It’s almost embarrassing to do this at this time because of what’s happening in Yarnell,” director David Wilson said at the beginning of the meeting,
After the meeting, he said many of the fallen, were sons of retired firefighters in the Prescott area.
Wilson said that Sun City West Fire District Assistant Chief Mary Dalton is a Prescott area resident and her son is a wildland firefighter who knew the men in the crew.
Van Scoter said Dalton, who commutes to Sun City West every day, spent the day with her son.