Wildfire survivor won’t second-guess 19 who died

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PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The lone member of a hotshot firefighting crew to escape a raging wildfire says he'll never second-guess the decisions his 19 colleagues made two months ago.
Brendan McDonough was serving as a lookout for his Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots that Sunday when flames forced him to retreat before the Yarnell Hill Fire enveloped his crewmates.
Now, after the memorials, funerals and the bulk of an official investigation into the fire, McDonough said he feels sorry for those who have publicly criticized the team's decision to descend into a brush-filled canyon as the inferno approached.
"I don't question why. I never questioned before, and I'm not going to now," McDonough said. "They did it because that's what they wanted to do, and that's the choice they made. I stand behind them on that choice."
McDonough declined to speak about specific details of the fire, instead focusing on his fellow firefighters. In an interview with KPNX-TV, Phoenix, he was matter-of-fact about his experience during the fire and the emotional turmoil since.
The Yarnell Hill Fire, though modest in size at about 13 square miles, destroyed more than 100 homes in communities on the mountain 80 miles northwest of Phoenix and resulted in the largest wildland-firefigher death toll in more than a half century.
McDonough was assigned as the Granite Mountain crew's spotter that June 30, a job he said he had been trained for and had filled on previous fires.
The blaze seemed docile that morning when it was still a brush fire slowly moving to the northeast.
"I didn't have an eerie feeling," he said. "It wasn't doing much at all."
Then, as afternoon thunderstorms kicked up and a weather alert blared over his radio, the blaze turned, racing through the chaparral and around the hotshots. McDonough was forced from his post, communicating with the crew by radio about his plans as he pulled out.
Fire officials and reports have outlined the sequence of events that followed. A member of another team on the fire, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, encountered McDonough descending from the hill.
The teams moved their crew vehicles away from the fire, but members of the Granite Mountain team were trapped by the advancing flames and had to deploy their portable fire shelters.
McDonough, separated from the team, had only radio chatter to give him an idea of its condition.
He described hearing a call from the Granite Mountain crew as members were forced to cover up in the emergency shelters. He said he knew the situation was grim.
"You have two options: They're going to pass away, or they're going to live," McDonough said. "I was just praying for their safety."
Within a short time, he said voices over the radio signaled a catastrophe: "The way they talked, you could kind of tell — the tone of voice, just the emotions."
Once the fatalities were announced, McDonough said he wanted to go home and be alone, but instead he joined hotshot friends and survivors at a school in Prescott. "That was the toughest. I didn't want to disappear on those families," he said. "I knew them. I knew the wives and kids. … I wasn't OK, but I was there."
In the past two months, McDonough said he has tried to come to grips with the event and with a nagging question about why he came out alive.
"It's not as much that I should have died with them," he said. "(But) I could have been up there. …
"It's tough not to ask, but that question will never be answered. So, I need to get over it. Why me? I just have to put that in the past, and I have. … I'm here."
McDonough said he understands that a fatal fire must be reviewed and that mistakes may be identified. But he criticized armchair experts who rushed to judgment, especially when no one ever will know what was going on with the Granite Mountain Hotshots during the final minutes before they died.
VIDEO: Crews in Rim Fire working slowly toward containment
MORE: The Arizona Republic's complete coverage of the Yarnell Hill Fire
"You know, these people are entitled to their opinion," McDonough said. "But people coming out with that information, I feel sorry for them because they're misinformed. … (The critic) is going to think it over in his head, and now, he is going to live with what he said about 19 firefighters who died, and he's bad-mouthing them."
McDonough said he visited the burned-out valley days later with wildfire experts who are conducting an investigation at the request of the Arizona Division of Forestry. Their report is expected to be completed in mid-September.
"I don't care what they say, I'll respect it whether it comes out good, bad, negative," McDonough said. "Hopefully, maybe they can find something out, you know. If there was a decision made that maybe we can learn from, that's great. It sucks that we have to learn like that, but I'm not saying I won't support them."
In the meantime, McDonough said he strives to be strong for his daughter and to provide support for the families of crew members whom he thinks about every day.
"I might hit rock bottom. I don't know," he said. "We'll see. I know I'll have support if I do. … Yeah, I cry. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, it hurts. But you can't dwell on it. It's just not going to get me anywhere. It's just like the question: Why?"
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