Environment & Science

The Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters — The lone survivor shares his story

A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book, "My Lost Brothers."
McCartin/Daniels PR
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
File: Firefighter Brendan McDonough, the lone survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, attends the candlelight vigil in honor of the 19 fallen firefighters at Prescott High School on July 2, 2013 in Prescott, Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book, "My Lost Brothers."
McCartin/Daniels PR
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
File: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer looks on as Brendan McDonough, the only surviving member of his crew, receives a hug from Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall during a memorial service at Tim's Toyota Center July 9, 2013 in Prescott Valley, Arizona.
David Kadlubowski-Pool/Getty Images
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
File: Brendan McDonough attends Country Cares concert raising over $400,000 to benefit the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots at Tim's Toyota Center on July 22, 2013 in Prescott, Arizona.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
File: Brendan McDonough and Dierks Bentley display check from Country Cares concert, raising over $400,000 to benefit the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, at Tim's Toyota Center on July 22, 2013 in Prescott, Arizona.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images
A photo from Brendan McDonough's book,
An aerial tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire threatening homes near Yarnell, Ariz., on July 1, 2013. An elite crew of firefighters was overtaken by the out-of-control blaze on June 30, killing 19 members as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields.
Chris Carlson/AP


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On June 30, 2013, the Granite Mountain Hotshots responded to a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona. The specially-trained wildland firefighters were met by a 3,000-degree firestorm that eventually took the lives of 19 firefighters from Prescott, Arizona within minutes, leaving a sole survivor: Brendan McDonough.

Four of those firefighters had Southern California roots. McDonough reflects on his life and the fire which burned 8,000 acres in his new book, "My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire's Lone Survivor," and he spoke with KPCC.

McDonough said that he wanted to be a firefighter since he was 13 or 14. He was advised to become a "hotshot" — the firefighters who are sent to fight wildfires in remote spots — because it meant the opportunity to travel and see the country.

McDonough said that he was going down a bad path and that joining the Granite Mountain Hotshots when he was 19 saved his life.

"The journey I was headed down before I got hired was not a good one. I was a drug addict. Six months before I got hired, I was just released out of jail," McDonough said. He'd been using heroin.

McDonough credits the Granite Mountain hotshots with turning him from who he was into who he is today.

"The guys that I worked with were just humble, caring, passionate, just amazing men that weren't only training me to be a firefighter, but to be a good dad," McDonough said. He has a young daughter.

The day that his team went to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire started like any other day, McDonough said, starting with his roommate who was one of the firefighters who died that day, Christopher MacKenzie.

"We both woke up, fighting to get in the shower, making some breakfast, and then on our way to work," McDonough said.

Assigned to keep lookout for the Yarnell Hill Fire, McDonough was not with his hotshot crew when they descended from their safe zone. He said that he left his lookout position, knowing that the fire was picking up, but trusting that everyone's training would lead to a good outcome. He said that he didn't comprehend the danger until he heard that his superintendent was deploying fire shelters with the crew.

"When I started seeing homes burn, when I heard that, that's when I really just felt, 'Wow, this is not something that I want to happen,'" McDonough said.

He added that fires can turn bad within minutes, comparing what happened to what firefighters are facing with the giant wildfire currently burning in Alberta, Canada.

On the day of the Yarnell Hill Fire, McDonough's crew was digging line up on a ridge, he said. He was stationed to the north, watching what was happening and relaying information.

McDonough said that his captain told him to get out of there and he was picked up by another crew. They ultimately died as they as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under the fire-resistant shields. McDonough didn't realize right away how badly things had gone.

"It felt like forever, but I'm sure it was just a short amount of time," McDonough said.

McDonough has had to cope with survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I've been through the intense counseling and I've had amazing support. And just continuing to know my purpose and to find that purpose again was tremendous," McDonough said.

He said that he'll be battling survivor's guilt for the rest of his life and continues to struggle with PTSD.

"The things that I saw and the things that I've been through have just been branded into my mind," McDonough said.

Since the fire, McDonough has worked with organizations including the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and Carry The Load. He speaks with firefighters, veterans, police officers and EMTs, encouraging them to seek any help they need, both physically and mentally.

McDonough said that writing the book has helped him to honor the legacy of those 19 firefighters, but that he doesn't expect to ever go back out on the fire lines.

"I have not been back out on the line, and I don't think personally, and I think I'm man enough to admit, that I probably won't ever," McDonough said.

He said that he has trust and faith in those fighting fires during what looks like a bad fire season this summer, hoping for their safety and that their families understand what they do and why they do it.

McDonough said that he has little reminders throughout his house that people have made to remember his lost team with, and said that if he could ask them any question, he'd want to know what Heaven is like — a question he says continues to give him hope.

Watch a video from the Weather Channel on the Yarnell Hill Fire which McDonough was interviewed for:

https://vimeo.com/82920041