The Yarnell Hill Fire Site, where 19 Hotshot firefighters lost their lives, was opened to the media for the first time this week. KTAR fire reporter Jim Cross visited the site and will talk about his experience and show pictures he took there.
Ted Simons: The site where 19 hotshots firefighters lost their lives battling the Yarnell hill fire was open to the media for the first time yesterday. Veteran wildfire reporter Jim Cross of KTAR radio was there and he joins us now. Thank you for joining us. Give us a general -- we have photos in a second here, but give us a general description of the scene.
Jim Cross: It brought it home to reality when you went into the canyon, how bad this was. The thing that really surprised me was that pictures didn't do it justice, how rugged, how deep this canyon really was. When you're on the ground inside of that canyon, it is enormous.
Ted Simons: Who was allowed access?
Jim Cross: Reporters, so far only fire people that went up there. Reporters, TV, photographers, and we went in there with some of the fire people, Darrell Willis, Prescott fire and so on.
Ted Simons: We so reporters going in there. Alright, the area, we can see lots of rocks. We can see obviously high walls there. Again, I've heard you describe this as a horseshoe kind of an area.
Jim Cross: Yeah, box canyon, basically, very high walls. Hundreds of feet high. Boulders, big boulders on the sides, some the sizes of buses, Volkswagons, pickup trucks.
Ted Simons: Firefighters were where?
Jim Cross: Firefighters if you compare it to a horseshoe, at the very curve of it and back of it.
Ted Simons: We're seeing a T-shirt on a cactus here.
Jim Cross: That is a Granite Mountain hotshot T-shirt, placed on a burnt cactus, we were asked to touch it as we went by to be solemn.
Ted Simons: Interesting. Back to the area and back to the region. Obviously it looks like a moon scape right now this whole area. Before what did we see as far as vegetation?
Jim Cross: It was brushy. Oak in there, maybe Chaparral --
Ted Simons: Six, seven, eight feet --
Jim Cross: Yeah, heavily covered. It was definitely vegetation was in there.
Ted Simons: This photograph right here, now, you mentioned a box canyon kind of horseshoe-esque. Are we looking back --
Jim Cross: That would be straight back toward the back of the canyon.
Ted Simons: What is the fence for?
Jim Cross: The fence is to protect the site where the firefighters deployed their shelters and where they eventually died in this fire, to keep people away from it.
Ted Simons: As far as you can tell, were they in the middle of this clearing or along the sides of one of the walls?
Jim Cross: Um, they were in the middle. I mean, it's closer to the middle than it is to the side. It is not a -- you know, hugely wide canyon. But it's, you know, half a mile in or so.
Ted Simons: Obviously not on the hills. In --
Jim Cross: They were on the floor, yeah.
Ted Simons: Were they close -- I've heard reports that they were very close together. Is that what you're hearing, what you saw up there as well as far as the terrain is concerned, they were probably in the same spot?
Jim Cross: Oh, yeah, they were all in the same spot. Shelters were deployed side by side. They were very close to each other.
Ted Simons: When we look at the photos that we are seeing here, fence walling off the area, the mountain side, the ravine, whatever you want to call that, the hillside. Do we know how they got into the area? There is a ranch nearby --
Jim Cross: A ranch about a half a mile away from where they were at. We talked to Prescott, you know, fire, fire chief, Darrell Wallace yesterday, he believes they were trying to save the ranch. And the ranch was saved. And the fire at one point was going away from them. It turned around with the wind shift, thunderstorms, 50 miles an hour and came back towards them. They were about as far back in the canyon as they could get when they deployed. There was no way you could climb out of that canyon. On a day when you -- it would have taken a half hour, 45 minutes to get out of there.
Ted Simons: And they were carrying that equipment to clear brush, correct? They were in there for a purpose.
Jim Cross: Yeah, they were in there cutting away brush that could have burned. In their spot where they deployed, they had cut away brush with chain saws, axes and so on and so forth.
Ted Simons: I would imagine that would be the opening to the box canyon --
Jim Cross: Just outside of the ranch. That picture right there really gives you a pretty good scale and scope of how, you know, rugged that canyon is and rough it is.
Ted Simons: That fire burned all of the way to the top of the walls and over.
Jim Cross: Completely. The rocks are dark from fire. Some of the rocks cracked. You know, the fire ended up burning about 8,500 acres. It scorched the canyon.
Ted Simons: As far as where the fire came and where it went, pretty hard to figure that out from evidence --
Jim Cross: Yeah, the investigation is still underway. We're going to have an investigation we believe by late August or maybe mid-September at the latest. And I think that will tell a bit more. There has been a lot of speculation about what happened. And yesterday we got a pretty good reality check from talking about the fire people about what really happened. You know, the canyon, like I said, impossible to climb out of. They deploy the shelters, that is always a worst case scenario, last-ditch effort. These shelters are good to about 500 degrees. This fire was burning much hotter than this.
Ted Simons: And moving very fast.
Jim Cross: Very fast. About four miles. It moved about four miles in 20 minutes. I've heard some estimates. I haven't seen it confirmed. Moving 20 feet a second. The fire moving incredibly fast. The conditions in there must have been just unbelievable.
Ted Simons: When you see that box canyon, obviously you were there. Did the concept of swirling winds, makes a heck of a lot of sense.
Jim Cross: Yeah, these thunderstorms -- this was an erratic thunderstorm. The fire, as I'm being told was moving away from them. It came back toward them. It probably blew in several different directions, it was -- all over the place.
Ted Simons: It brought this all home to you. Did being there give you a different perspective?
Jim Cross: It gave me a different perspective. It sinks in the reality. It has been a tough story to cover for almost a month anyway. It really brought it home. To see the canyon where this happened, gave you a better idea of what happened and size and scale of it. It is just -- it is totally different when you see it in person and pictures do not do it justice.
Ted Simons: Thank you for sharing those photographs with us.
Jim Cross: Thank you.
Jim Cross:Fire Reporter, KTAR;