The fire began with a lightning strike on Friday, June 28, and worsened by the hour through the weekend — at one point causing flames up to 20 feet high. The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was called in on the morning of June 30 to help protect the town of Yarnell in the foothills south of Prescott.
Afternoon thunderstorms and associated winds of more than 50 mph whipped the fire into an inferno as 19 of the Hotshots climbed over a ridge.
They likely saw the fire advancing on a nearby ranch, and were headed there to save the structure when the blaze suddenly turned toward them, Willis said. The fire forced them to retreat to the relatively flat area surrounded by mountains where they found themselves trapped, he said, adding that he lost "19 adopted sons" on that fateful day.
"The heat was so intense their shelters broke down," Willis said as he stood on the edge of the site, now encircled by a chain link fence.
A ranch that was to serve as the Hotshots safety zone could be seen about 500 yards in the distance. Willis said the fire hooked around the men, blocking their way out of the fire's path and backing them up to the mountains.
"They protected themselves as a last resort," he said. "I don't think they were aware of how quick" the fire was moving.
"This is the most extreme fire behavior I have ever witnessed," Willis added. "I'm sickened. I'm saddened."
A national team of investigators has finished gathering evidence from the scene and interviewing other firefighters. It's expected their report on the fatalities will be completed sometime in late August or early September.
"There are a lot of whys, whats and what-ifs that you just have to realize we can't answer," Paxon said. "Those answers died with the crew."