Up into a darkened land

Ruins of The Shrine of Saint Joseph.

Ruins of The Shrine of Saint Joseph.

Last weekend Nebra and I ventured up Yarnell Hill.  Not even a full month had passed since the big wildlands fire up there had killed 19 firefighters on June 30.

Coming up on US 89 from Congress, there was no hint of fire damage until we reached the very top, at the little residential development called Glen Ilah.  Lots of burn in there.  But a mile farther north, in the small town of Yarnell, we passed down the main street, which is also the highway, and you would think nothing happened.

Not all was lost at The Shrine.

Not all was lost at The Shrine.

A restaurant was open for business as were a few other stores.  Everything looked normal.  Only a faint hint of smoke in the air.

It was not until we took a side street west, on Shrine Drive, that a darkened landscape began to appear.  About a quarter-mile in, houses had burned.  Yet some still stood untouched by flame.

Charred boulders north of Yarnell.

Charred boulders north of Yarnell.

A sign at The Shrine of Saint Joseph, a popular religious attraction, said losses included crosses at the top of the hill on the west, the gift shop and three other buildings.  At the Retreat Center, three buildings, the caretaker’s house and some storage  units were burned.

Fence-line memorials to the 19 firefighters.

Fence-line memorials to the 19 firefighters.

We walked through the devastated shrine.  Some crosses escaped damage and many of the statues were intact, but in all, the sight was depressing.  And even then, at its darkest moment, the Shrine proved an attraction.  A steady flow of cars and pedestrians came down to the end of Shrine Drive to inspect.  Many got out of their cars and moved solemnly through the disaster.

One of the memorial up close.

One of the memorial up close.

Down 89 to the north toward Peeples Valley and looking west, the blackened land appeared enormous.  Charred boulders and burnt chaparral everywhere the eye could see.   The death-scene of the firefighters lay out there somewhere, just out of view.

We turned around at one of Rex Maughan’s numerous ranches.  He owns about 150,000 acres scattered in western Arizona.  A sign on an attractive white metal fence notes:  “Maughan Ranches.”  It holds 19 memorials for each of the fallen firefighters.

Flat-topped Antelope Peak east from The Shrine.

Flat-topped Antelope Peak east from The Shrine.

It was our hope to climb atop Antelope Peak, high on the east edge of Yarnell.  From there it was thought we could get a greater view of the total damage wreaked by the Yarnell Hill Fire.  But we could not find an access or trail information.  We asked a man getting into his car if he knew how to get to the summit.  He did not seem to know what Antelope Peak was.

And yet at The Shrine, an oasis.

And yet at The Shrine, an oasis.

Like many up here, he no doubt had a lot more in his mind than dealing with a couple of would-be hikers.


Yarnell Hill worst ‘firefighting’ disaster in U.S. history

There is a vast difference between “firefighters” and “men fighting fires.”  One is trained to fight fires, the other is not.

So seems the case when comparing the 29 killed in the Griffith Park Fire of 1933 and the 19 killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30.  It is more than just the time frame of 80 years that separates them.

Most news accounts inaccurately describe the Griffith Park Fire as the most deadly firefighting event in U.S. history, with the Yarnell Fire in Arizona a distant second.

A close look at the tragedy in Griffith Park, north of Los Angeles, shows a vast contrast with the firefighting capabilities in Arizona by the Granite Mountain Hotshots.  The Hotshots, in addition to having use of the latest communication devices and weather reports, have been described as an elite and highly-trained group of young men.  The Griffith Park “firefighters” were anything but.

The description below was gleaned from a series of 1994 articles done by a California newspaper, the Glendale News-Press.

It was October 3, 1933, a clear afternoon with torrid temperatures reported at noon as high as 100 F in downtown L.A.   At the height of the Great Depression, more than 3,700 male workers and transients had signed up to help clear brush and construct improvements at Griffith Park as part of Los Angeles County’s welfare relief program.   The workers received 40 cents a day for their efforts, or $2.40 for their normal work week of six days.

The fire began about 2 p.m. under an oak tree in the park and developed quickly.

“A shift in wind sent a shaft of flame up the slopes of Dam Canyon,” it was reported.

The workers, depending on the source, were either commanded by bosses or volunteered to pick up their shovels and beat out the fire.  The first trained firemen did not arrive for some time.  By then the damage had been done.  Many had fled uphill wrongly thinking they could find safety up there.  And died.

There were no fire shelters like the Hotshots deployed.  One man survived by jumping into a stone planter he was constructing and covering himself with sand.

Trained firemen soon found they had no control over the thousands of workers.  Disorganization ruled.  There was no communication.  Radio dispatches were years away.  There were no weather reports regarding wind of anything else as was the case at Yarnell.  The Griffith Park workers were left to their own devices.  Some fled, others stayed and did more damage than good.  The fire was soon put out.  The burned area amounted to only about 47 acres.

Later, a Coroner’s Inquest panel of 9 firefighting experts said most of the deaths were not caused by the original fire.  They were caused by workers lighting ill-concenived “back-fires” that turned on them.

In an order to save face, it may behoove federal, state and local officials in Arizona to downplay the Yarnell Fire by pointing to the Griffith Park fire as far worse.  But a close inspection of the facts will tell the discerning fact-finder otherwise.


Yarnell Hill: Hardly a place for tragedy

I’ve driven many a time up Yarnell Hill, stopping for breakfast at the little town of Yarnell, then across Peeples Valley, on my way to or from Prescott.  But not once did I ever think it possible a catastrophe of such magnitude could occur in these idyllic mountains of gray granite boulders and chaparral.  It is hard to get the mind around 19 firefighters killed in a single swoop up there.  Yet that’s what happened on June 30 during the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The road up Yarnell Hill is not well-known, even to Arizonans.  At least it wasn’t until yesterday, when on a late Sunday afternoon winds from an approaching thunderstorm took a dramatic turn south, trapping the Granite Mountain Hotshots in a fiery burst.

The switchback road, or state Highway 89, is the backdoor to Prescott from Phoenix and other points south.  And it is the best choice for those few who prefer a scenic route to the other major track, bland Interstate 17 and Arizona 69 far to the east, which is shorter and faster.

On weekends, you’ll often find the road filled with riders on motorcycles driven at low speeds, as they enjoy a relaxing trip through the mountains, the Weavers to the south and later approaching Prescott  the pine-topped Bradshaws.  Traversing the hair-pin curves among beautiful stands of Ponderosa, more than one rider has driven off the pavement and into trouble.

From the top of Yarnell Hill, you can see 80 miles or more, almost to Phoenix.  Over just 8 miles, the road rises sharply about 1,700 feet off the desert floor from the old mining town of Congress up to another wee town called Yarnell, which rests under the area landmark, a mesa called Antelope Hill.

On the way up to Yarnell, you find the foundation of an old restaurant with once-magnificent views of the desert below and a turn-out to a grand vista.  The restaurant ruins are no doubt a testament to changing times and “progress,” when people chose speed and expediency of the Interstate to beauty.

In the evenings, as the sun subsides, the views from up here are other-worldly.  You can look down on Arizona as it has always looked and take in the aroma of history.

Rich Hill sets just below.  Huge nuggets of gold were reported to have been discovered on top by among others Jack Swilling, one of the founders of Phoenix.

On the horizon to the south, there is distinctive Vulture Peak, a large volcanic plug near Vulture Mine, the most famous Arizona gold mine of Territorial days.

Snaking below to the southeast is the historic Hassayampa River.  It is dry in most places for much of the year.  The first white men to venture into central Arizona, the Walker Party in 1863, followed the river upstream in search of gold.  Their settlement, Prescott, became Arizona Territory’s first capital.

Just over the dry hills from Yarnell, and out of sight, is the scene of one of the biggest dam disasters in the West.  A large free-masonry dam south of the village of Walnut Grove burst in February of 1890 and killed about 50 people downstream.

In olden times, traveling up and down Yarnell Hill was avoided like the plague.  It was way too steep and rugged.  The old stagecoach road between Prescott and Phoenix, via Wickenburg and the Vulture Mine, circumvented Yarnell Hill to the west, through Date Creek and a no-man’s land once filled with danger, particularly from Indian ambushes at places like Bell’s Canyon.

The first road on Yarnell Hill was built in 1872.

The project was first discussed in June of that year as a toll road.  Several men, including noted Peeples Valley pioneer, Charles Genung, established a company to raise $5,000 for funding.  They planned to sell 200 shares of stock at $25 a share.  Like I-17 in modern times, the route would be shorter and faster — and likely become the most traveled route between Prescott and Phoenix.

The road went by several names.  The Genung Cut-Off and Antelope Hill were the most used before “Yarnell Hill.”  By early 1873, the route was used by light wagons but was still too rough for the larger ones moving freight.  Later, the Genung route was abandoned for a nicely paved highway to the southwest.

With the tragedy of June 30, this land of history and beauty is receiving a more dire reputation than it deserves.