YARNELL - The location is a basin surrounded on three sides by charred, boulder-strewn mountains. Blackened cacti appear as though they melted in the flames. Rocks the size of pickup trucks are perched precariously on the steep hillsides. An American flag flaps in the wind near a Granite Mountain Hotshots T-shirt that hangs on a burned cactus as a makeshift memorial to the men who died there.
Authorities provided a tour Tuesday of the location where 19 elite firefighters, known as hotshots, were engulfed in flames late last month while protecting a former gold rush town from a volatile wildfire.
The site provides perspective of the terrain crew members faced as they found themselves trapped by a wall of fast-moving flames while erratic winds whipped the blaze in all directions.
Officials speculated the fire quickly shifted toward them, forcing the men to retreat into the bowl beneath the mountains, the hillsides way too steep to even attempt to outrun the flames.
"It was like a blowtorch in a tunnel," said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Division of Forestry, which was managing the fire around Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. "The fire's rate of speed and intensity was beyond comprehension."
Prescott Wildland Fire Chief Darrell Willis, who helped form the hotshots crew, said it appeared the men quickly tried to clear the area of scrub and brush that could fuel the fire, using hatchets, chain saws and shovels, hoping they could endure the intense heat as the blaze bore down.
They deployed their emergency shelters, but the heat and smoke were too much. All 19 died at the scene. The 20th crew member, the lookout, was the only survivor.
The blaze ended up destroying more than 100 homes before it was fully contained on July 10.