Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that the 19 firefighters were a part of the city’s fire department. The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona.
“By the time they got there, it was moving very quickly,” he said.
He added that the firefighters had to deploy the emergency shelters when “something drastic” occurred.
“One of the last fail safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective â€¦ foil-type fire-resistant material â€” with the desire, the hope at least, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it,” Fraijo said.
“Under certain conditions there’s usually only sometimes a 50 per cent chance that they survive,” he said. “It’s an extreme measure that’s taken under the absolute worst conditions.”
THE NIGHT AFTER I leave the Mill Fire, the hotshots begin a controlled burn on the north side of the canyon. But then the winds pick up: 15-mile-per-hour gusts start blowing downhill, threatening to carry the flames onto the canyonâ€™s southern slopes. By this point, the fire is at 25,000 acres.
Cowell and Eric Rice, one of Cowellâ€™s two foremen, leave the crew to scout a corner of the canyon where the winds are particularly volatile. Above, a helicopter launches napalm-filled pellets into the brushy draw between the road and the main fire, an attempt to coax a fuel burnout before the winds get stronger. Ten engines are parked on the road, ready to hose down any sparks that blow across the stream into the southern side of the canyon.
Thatâ€™s when things go haywire. Around 7:30 P.M., a gust sends the fire down toward the line, blowing burning leaves over the engine crews. Some land on the exposed necks of firefighters, sizzling in their sweat. Others float into the dry chamise thickets at the base of the canyonâ€™s southern slopes. A strap of fire begins running up from the creek bed.
Cowell grabs his radio and barks to Moschetti, the other foreman, â€œGet â€™em up, Brad. Weâ€™re going after the west flank.â€ The spot fire runs from bushes to gray pines: one, two, four acres. In the creek bed, the crew members are boot deep in the streamâ€™s tepid water, waiting for three guys from an engine crew to drag a hose up the cut bank that separates them from the flames.
Rojas and a swamper scramble up the cut bank and, with another hotshot crew, use chainsaws to bore a three-foot-wide hole in the brushâ€”just big enough to drag a hose through. The engine crew follows behind, shooting a beam of water over Rojas and into the 15-foot flames roaring ahead. Itâ€™s steep, 45 degrees in places, and covered with stones the size of a babyâ€™s head. Rojas yells â€œRock!â€ when he knocks them loose; they come tumbling down the mountain at the other hotshots, who are widening the break.
Alicia Miller brings up the rear, using a rake to sweep away the leaves lodged in the scree. Between her and Cowell, whoâ€™s up front with Rojas and the sawyers, some 40 hotshots and engine-crew members are working on the line at a frantic pace.
At 11 P.M., the crew hooks over the top of the spot and starts building line down the eastern flank and back toward the creek. Rojas is mowing through the brush when a flare-up sends a wash of embers overhead. Behind him, Cowell yells, â€œRTO! RTO!â€ It stands for reverse tool order, which basically means get the hell out. The crews power through the brush to the top of the spot, where they pause to catch their breath.
Burning mountains surround them, and Cowell has to make a decision. They either gamble and try to put out the spot fire by building a firebreak directly on its eastern edge, or they back off and take the line up to the ridge top. Option two is safer, but it gives the fire a chance to gain momentum. Cowell sends Rice downhill to scout. The foreman climbs a tree, sees emergency lights flashing 500 feet below, and hears another hotshot crewâ€™s saws screaming in the night. The fire looks manageable. â€œWe can do this,â€ Rice radios to Cowell.
â€œTirso, youâ€™re on,â€ Cowell says to Rojas, who fires up his saw and starts building line downhill. Not long after midnight they finish. The spotâ€™s contained, and the Mill Fire wonâ€™t grow another acre.