The wind had increased and radically changed direction. We stopped work on the firebreak, looked down the steep hill and saw the unthinkable. The wildfire threatening Yarnell, Arizona, previously obscured by smoke, was shockingly close and racing up the draw toward us at unbelievable speed.
No one can outrun a wind-driven wildfire leaping up a hillside. We had no vehicles to extract us. We’d hiked miles to a planned firebreak site with just the tools in our hands and on our backs. Our only hope was immediate fire suppression from the air. Eric, our leader, was yelling into the radio.
Burning embers began to pelt us. “Clear an area! Shelter in place!”. We all knew that this was the worst scenario. The unnerving sound of high-revving chainsaws ripped the air as we dragged brush clear of a space forty yards across. We spread fire shelters, thin aluminized tents, as the fire approached. The scene was hurried but orderly. Rookies climbed into their shelters first helped by the more senior firefighters. We lay head-to-head with our feet radiating like spokes. The fire was moving fast. Maybe it would pass over quickly. Shouts of encouragement competed with the wind and growing roar of the fire.