A flagpole sits near the area where 19 Prescott firefighters died June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Visitors are asked to touch this Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt at the site as a sign of respect for the fallen firefighters. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Prescott Fire Division Chief Darrell Willis says he believes the firefighters left the safety of an already burned area to protect a nearby ranch. (Source: CBS 5 News)
Veteran firefighter Jim Paxon called the Yarnell Hill Fire a "tsunami." (Source: CBS 5 News)
YARNELL, AZ (CBS5) -
Black stumps, scorched ground and charred boulders leave the impression this area is no different than any other left blackened by an Arizona wildfire.
But in an almost silent box canyon west of the town of Yarnell stands a flagpole with Old Glory slowly waving in the breeze. A T-shirt is stretched across a blistered cactus. And a fence surrounds the ground now considered hallowed ground.
It's the slope where 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives June 30 when they were overtaken by wind-angered flames from the Yarnell Hill Fire.
"This is exactly the ground that they died on," said Prescott Fire Division Chief Darrell Willis.
Willis was the fire chief who started the Granite Mountain Hotshots more than a decade ago.
On Tuesday, he talked about how they came to their fiery end.
He said he believes the Hotshots dropped down the steep walls, leaving safety behind in order to save a nearby ranch.
"They were in a safe location," he explained. But they didn't stay long.
Earlier in the day, they walked a nearby ridge.
By 4 p.m., the weather had turned and the fire was erupting, traveling an estimated 20 feet per second.
The Hotshots, now referred to as the Prescott 19, originally retreated into a previously burned location called the "black," a safe area where the tinder-dry fuel had already burned the ground black.
But they made the choice to leave.
"It was a decision they made at that time and they thought it was the best outcome," Willis said.
Why they decided to leave the relative safety of the "black" and end up in the valley that would eventually take their lives is the source of a lot of speculation.
The crew's former boss believes they were trying to save a nearby ranch.
"They were moving down to protect this house. That's my theory on it," Willis said.
But a satellite image of that ranch shows it was already fire-proofed, the brush around it cleared away.
"I don't have the answers," said veteran firefighter Jim Paxon.
Paxon told CBS 5 News it could have been that the Hotshots just thought they'd be safer if they made it to the ranch.
"If where you are is not a truly safe zone, then you have to go to where your chances are better," Paxon said
In this situation, the firefighters found themselves at the bottom of a steep box canyon - walls around them, the raging fire in front.
Radio communications and evidence at the scene showed they fought until the end.
"They started to cut out a safety zone with their saws," Willis said.
Satellite images show just how green the canyon was, full of fuel that created the fatal onslaught of fire.
When the firefighters first laid eyes on this valley, it looked a lot different. They were atop that ridge. No fire in sight.
It's hard to imagine that the valley was ever filled with so many trees and so much brush. Today, it resembles a moonscape, an area that burned like a blast furnace.
"It was a tsunami," Paxon said.
Behind the fence easily seen from U.S. Highway 89 are the very spots where the Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed their fire shelters in a last-ditch effort to save their lives.
Every visitor is asked to touch the Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt that stretches across the burned cactus as they arrive at the site as a solemn tribute to the Prescott 19.
The fire left questions that might never be answered.
"Basically the answers of why they did and what they did died with the crew," Paxon said.
Some additional details could be learned around the beginning of September, when the first part of the official investigation is set for release.
"You can call it an accident," Willis said. "But I just say God had a different plan for the crew at this time."
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