PRESCOTT, Ariz. - During the summer months in Arizona, fires are an ordinary occurrence. But the bravery shown by the Hotshot crew, 19 men who gave their lives saving the small town of Yarnell on June 30, was anything but commonplace.
It Was Sunday
Sunday was normally a day off for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but a wildfire blazing outside of Yarnell that day had grown enough to put an end to any weekend plans. After a morning run at six, the men said goodbye to their kids, kissed their wives and donned their protective gear one final time to battle the 2,000-acre Yarnell Hill wildfire.
By the time the 20 members of the crew arrived on scene around 9 a.m., the fire was reaching abnormal temperatures for the time of day. But, the Hotshots were well prepared and put their training into action. There was no doubt in any of the leadership’s minds about the safety of the team. They knew what had to be done and got to work.
Six hours later though, and the fire behavior was beyond extreme. At this point, Prescott Fire Department Division Chief Darrell Willis, who was with a crew at a different spot on the fire, tuned in to the Granite Mountain radio frequency to check on them.
With the blaze growing, he listened to the Hotshots play-by-play crackle through the radio speakers.
He learned they were moving out of their location and into a safe zone, also known as, “The Black.” Shortly afterward, he learned they were being out-flanked by the roaring flames and it was coming back on their position in the black. Their plan was to cut a safety zone, burn out around themselves and deploy their shelters.
With the Hotshots safety uncertain, Willis’ crew met its own challenges — a significant advancement of the fire at their location made him shift his focus to his own crew. While dealing with his own oncoming blaze, Willis received a phone call alerting his attention back to the Granite Mountain crew. Willis’ crew was in a tight spot, but he knew the Granite Mountain Hotshots were up against even more. He handed over command of his division to his subordinate and moved around to the other side of the fire where the operations chief for the Granite Mountain crew was located.
Once there, Willis made multiple unsuccessful calls to the Hotshots. His thoughts began to run wild. He had full confidence in the leadership of crew captain Jesse Steed and the rest of the 20-man team, but his calls remained unanswered.
Joining the Hotshots
Desiree Steed said she had grown accustomed to, even complacent with, the rhythm of wildfire season in Prescott, Ariz. Her husband, Jesse, had been fighting wildfires for 12 years and the regular stints to battle the blazes were just another part of their life. Desiree met Jesse in 2000, just three months after Jesse ended his enlistment with the Marine Corps. Initially, Desiree was intimidated by his massive six-foot four-inch, 220-pound frame, but quickly found a gentle, teddy bear-like quality underneath. Although gentle, Jesse was tough and was an avid thrill-seeker, often riding out into the Arizona sand dunes to drive sand rails, dirt bikes or quads — anything that would give him an adrenaline rush.
When they first met, Jesse was unsure about what he wanted to do with his life after the Corps. He missed the camaraderie and contemplated going back into the service. Then he found the closest civilian equivalent to the Marine Corps brotherhood he could find— the Hotshots.
The Hotshots can be considered the equivalent of Marines at war — they’re the first in at the most critical point of wildfires. They are in the most dangerous positions, in the toughest places, with the toughest jobs. It was all these things that drew Jesse to join their ranks.
Jesse wasn’t the only one who gravitated to the brotherhood and adventure of the Hotshots. Fellow Marine veterans Travis Turbyfill and Billy Warneke also found their niche fighting fires with the Granite Mountain crew. Jesse and Travis introduced their new brothers to doing pushups in accordance with the number on each card drawn from a deck, something they learned while in the Corps. There were times when they would return from 16 hours on the job and pull out a deck of cards for a quick workout.
Jesse was constantly leading from the front and pushing those under him — and even his superiors — to go further. But underneath his go-getter personality, Jesse deeply cared for each member of his crew. He was renowned for ending conversations with his men with an “I love you.” Not the type of behavior you’d expect from the towering leader of the Hotshot crew, but that was what made Jesse so unique.
Once, while out controlling a fire, it was just Jesse and a fellow Hotshot named Phillip Maldonado, known as Mondo to the crew. Jesse had his back to Mondo and didn’t see a tree falling his way. Mondo called out a warning to him and Jesse turned just in time to see the tree about to crash into him. But Jesse didn’t cower or run away.
“He stood there like an ox and simply shouldered the tree and pushed it away from him with one hand,” Maldonado said.
The two Hotshots stood there for a moment in awe. Then just like that, Jesse flipped the switch, as he so often did, to his softer side. He embraced Mondo, told him he loved him and for the first time — Mondo said he loved him back.
A Father’s Legacy
It was this soft side and his even more prominent goofy side that made Jesse an amazing dad to his two kids, Caden and Cambria. He was a hands-on dad from day one, changing his fair share of diapers and waking up at night to soothe an upset child the way only a parent can. His kids adored him. Caden often donned Jesse’s firefighter gear —a miniature version of his father, running around the house fighting pretend fires.
“He’d run around and pretend to be dad,” Desiree said. “Not just any fireman, he had to be dad.”
Learning to lead
Family linked so many of the Hotshot team members together. Billy Warneke’s wife Roxanne is expecting their first child this December. Travis Turbyfill was dedicated to spending as much time as possible with his two girls Brooklyn and Brynley. His wife Stephanie fondly remembers the day their oldest daughter was born and Travis had tears running down his face all day. In fact, she said Travis wanted to move on from being a Hotshot to a structural firefighter so he could spend more time with his wife and kids.
For Travis, the dream of becoming a firefighter began long before Jesse found his way to the Hotshot team. Even from the time he was a young boy, Travis wanted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and become a member of the Prescott fire department. But in his early life, Travis had a bit of a wild streak. In high school, he took a fire science course taught by Conrad Jackson and it was a turning point in his life. Travis enjoyed the course so much he came back the following year as Jackson’s teaching assistant. Over the next few years, Jackson served as a mentor in Travis’ journey to become a firefighter. But, even after graduation, Jackson knew Travis wasn’t ready to be a successful firefighter yet. He still had some growing up to do.
“The Marine Corps finally got him screwed on straight,” Jackson said. “He was a wild youth and I think his time in the Corps helped give him a direction, helped him recognize authority.”
Following his time in the Corps, Travis went on to become a Hotshot, while guided by the advice of Jackson, who had quit working as a teacher and become a structural firefighter for Prescott. Travis was still passionate about firefighting, but he threw a lot more ‘sirs’ into his conversations with Jackson and had slowly transformed from a wild boy into a responsible man who was ready to lead.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
On June 30, Travis and fellow Marine Jesse led the Granite Mountain crew into the toughest fight they had ever faced with no second-guesses. They had a mission to accomplish — protect the community of Yarnell — and just like their time in the Corps, they were willing to lay down their lives to achieve that goal.
As Chief Willis tried unsuccessfully to make radio contact with the crew that bleak afternoon, Travis, Jesse, Billy and the other Granite Mountain Hotshots were putting up their last fight against the roaring smoke and flames. Hours later, an all-terrain vehicle worked its way through the fire, amidst the charred landscape it found the bodies of 19 men. The Hotshots had fought their last fire.
In the tight-knit community of Prescott, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the brave actions of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. Marquee letter signs outside businesses, signs posted by the side of the road, flags flown at half-staff and a memorial outside Prescott Station No. 7 are constant reminders of just how much the men will be missed by the entire community.
On July 10 and 11, family and friends gathered at Heights Church in Prescott to remember the lives of Jesse and Travis. At the front of the church, immediate family members consoled one another as slide shows relived the happy moments they shared with their loved ones. Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the Prescott Fire Department remembered the heroes who had worked beside them, fighting countless wildfires outside Prescott.
Representatives from the Marine Corps were also in attendance to give military honors to both Marine veterans in acknowledgement of their faithful years of service and exceptional sacrifice in their continued service as firefighters.
Both Stephanie Turbyfill and Desiree Steed received a folded American from her husband’s coffin. Serving had been such an integral part of who the men had become that it seemed only fitting to honor them this way. As the bagpipes played and the coffins were quietly escorted from the church, the families and friends of these firefighters are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on.
Although Desiree no longer has Jesse, her rock, to lean on in this tough time, she said she knows she must be strong for her children —they need her more than ever now. Although the circumstances surrounding Jesse’s death are tragic, Desiree is comforted by the fact that Jesse died a hero.
“Jesse was the type, as I’m sure a lot of Marines or firemen are, if he had to go out, I can’t think of a better way for it to have happened,” Desire said. “As tragic as that is, he died a hero.”
Both she and Stephanie must continue to keep their husbands’ memories alive for their kids as they grow, so they will always know how much their fathers loved them. These women now have one more thing in common — their grief. And on days when they feel they can’t go on, they have the support of each other to help them make it through.
For the remaining members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, their duties remain the same. They will continue protecting the communities around Prescott from the wildfires, but now have the additional duty of living up to the example and sacrifices of their fallen brothers.
Although the 19 may be gone, they will always be remembered by their community of family, friends, fellow firefighters — and for Travis, Jesse and Billy, their fellow Marines.