YARNELL, Ariz. -- Juliann Ashcraft had just put the kids down for a nap when her cellphone buzzed. It was a text from Andrew, her husband of seven years and, still, her best friend.
"This is my lunch spot," he wrote beneath a photo of firefighters watching smoke rise. "too bad lunch was an MRE," the text concluded.
It was 2:16 p.m. June 30.
That Sunday morning, Ashcraft and the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had been deployed to the ranching community of Yarnell to fight yet another wildfire. The crew had barely gotten home from a different blaze when word came that the team was needed again.
"I think I will be down there for a while on this one," 29-year-old Ashcraft had told his wife via text.
The father of four always seized every opportunity to call or text Juliann while out on a job -- even if it meant hiking to the top of a mountain to get a signal. Still, during the summer wildfire season, it was not unusual for the couple to go weeks on end without any communication. This day, so far, had been different.
That afternoon Juliann texted to report that it was raining at their house in nearby Prescott. She told her husband how much she wished he could be there, watching the drops fall with her and the kids.
"We could really use some rain over here," he replied.
With that, their exchanges stopped. Thanks to the photo, Juliann could at least picture where Andrew was. But while it offered some comfort, the image was also foreboding.
In the distance billowed a blackish-brown plume -- spreading like a bruise across the graying sky.
The blaze had ignited two days earlier with a lightning strike along the Date Creek Mountains above Yarnell. This particular area had not burned in some 40 years and was deep into a drought -- making it far more susceptible to fire.
Still, at first, officials determined this blaze to be small, posing no immediate threat to Yarnell's 700 residents.
Around 10 a.m. June 29, the Arizona State Forestry Division called in a pair of air tankers, a helicopter, some fire engines and a couple of hand crews. By nightfall, the fire was just 15 acres.
Overnight the blaze grew to 200 acres, and officials were transitioning to a larger command team to oversee firefighting efforts and calling in more personnel.
Around 6 a.m., Darrell Willis, chief of the Prescott Fire Department's Wildland Fire Division, was loading his truck with food for the crews when his phone rang. It was Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who were based out of Willis' department. "Hey, chief," Marsh said. "We're coming down to the fire."
At 43, Marsh was the oldest member of the Hotshot team and its founder. Within six years of its beginning as a fuels mitigation unit in 2002, the Granite Mountain group had joined the elite Hotshot community -- the first such crew attached to a municipal department.
Marsh and Willis had worked together for years, and were close friends as well as colleagues.
Willis gave Marsh the rundown: Active fire. Lots of homes potentially at risk. "It's one of those days," he warned. Then Willis ended the conversation the way he does anytime he's speaking to a firefighter. "Be safe," he told Marsh.
By 9:30 a.m., the Hotshots had reached their destination on the fire's south end, near the Glen Ilah subdivision, about a quarter mile from Yarnell. The area had been bulldozed, so the crew used chain saws, axes and other gear to build a line between the blaze and the town in case the winds changed. They also mapped out an escape route.
In rugged terrain like that where the Hotshots were working, any thunder activity or downdrafts can cause winds to shift and flames to shoot in all directions, fire experts say. In part, for that very reason, each crew always has at least one member serving as a lookout to radio changes in conditions to the team.
That Sunday, Granite Mountain Hotshot Brendan McDonough was the eyes for the other 19.
At 2 p.m., Yarnell school board member Eric Lawton was returning home from a trip and saw fire near a school and a few homes, but he still believed Yarnell to be safe. At the time, a weather station 6 miles away showed winds coming from the southwest at 10 mph.
A sudden shift
Soon, evacuations were under way. A thunderstorm was brewing, and the winds had shifted nearly 180 degrees -- sending flames racing into Yarnell.
It was approaching 5 p.m., and the winds were now coming from the north at 26 mph, with gusts to 43 mph.
From his lookout post, McDonough saw the shift in winds and the fire suddenly coming toward him. He radioed to his crewmates, telling them his trigger point had been reached and that he was heading for safe ground.
As a Prescott fire official would later recount, McDonough told his team to contact him on the radio if they needed anything. Then he rode away with a firefighter from another Hotshot team. When last he looked, McDonough's lookout position had already burned over.
At 4:47 p.m., Eric Marsh did radio to fire commanders, and his message was terrifying. The 19 remaining Hotshots were deploying their emergency fire shelters -- a firefighter's last resort.
Willis, the Prescott wildland fire chief, was in his pickup outside Yarnell, listening to the Hotshots' tactical frequency, when he heard a garbled message from Marsh that he couldn't quite make out. Then his cellphone rang.
"Did you hear that?" a supervisor asked him. All Willis could think was, "Not those guys." His guys.
Then he began to pray. Over and over again, the radio crackled with a constant, heartbreaking summons:
"Are you there Granite Mountain? Are you there Granite Mountain?" Maybe, thought Willis, they're just out of radio contact. Maybe, he hoped, his friends would walk out of that smoke at any minute.
Helicopters circled the area in an attempt to douse the flames. But the smoke was so thick crews could only guess at where to drop their loads.
Back in Prescott, Juliann Ashcraft was watching TV with her children -- Ryder, 6; Shiloh, 4; Tate Andrew, 2; and Choice, 1.
Andrew Ashcraft was only in his third season with the Hotshots, but he'd been working toward the job for years. It was about 7 p.m. when a TV announcer came on with the report: A Hotshot crew had been overrun near Yarnell. Not wanting to break down in front of her children, Juliann rushed to her bedroom, while a friend who happened to be there gathered the children in prayer.
A couple of miles away, Colleen Turbyfill was scanning Facebook when a news alert popped up about a Hotshot crew. Her stepson, Travis, was a member of the Granite Mountain team.
He was 4 when he literally burst into her life. She was eating pizza with friends when the boy rushed up to her and asked if she could sew a button on his shirt.
In 1990, she married Travis' father and adopted the boy who, even then, knew what he wanted to be one day. When Travis was in kindergarten, he drew a picture of a fire truck and titled it, "When I grow up."
Strangely, he did not draw the typical red hook-and-ladder truck, but rather a pale green vehicle that resembles the type the Granite Mountain crew used.
Colleen had last seen Travis just days before, when he returned from working another blaze. That fire had threatened her own parents' home nearby. For the first time, the danger seemed too close.
"I know that you love it," she told him. "But I hate it now."
He had been saying all season that this would be his last as a Hotshot. Still dressed in his fire gear and reeking of smoke, he had wrapped Colleen in a bear hug and told her not to worry.
"We've got a great crew," the 27-year-old father of two young girls said. "I love what I do, and we're going to be OK."
Now she wondered if that were true. At 7:25 p.m., Colleen grabbed her phone and texted Travis' wife, Stephanie.
"Do you know where Travis is?"
"Yarnell," her daughter-in-law replied. "Haven't heard from him all day."
At 7:28, Colleen typed: "Heard there is a crew trapped surrounded by fire. They were ok but no way out. Worried sick. If you hear anything please let me know."
"How did you hear that?" Stephanie replied. "News??"
At 7:33, Colleen wrote back. "19 fatalities. Hot shots involved"
For a short time, no one knew who the lone survivor was. Each man's family prayed that their son-husband-brother had been the lucky one.
Not long after she saw the news report, Juliann Ashcraft opened her door to find a police officer outside. Andrew had not made it.
With family and friends to look after the children, she headed to Prescott's Mile High Middle School to grieve with the other families. There, officials gave some details of what had happened. They talked about a freak storm, and said the men appeared to have done everything by the book.
Juliann found some comfort in that, and also in learning that her husband and his friends were never left alone.
Willis and three other men sat vigil with the firefighters all night, until their bodies were removed the next morning and transported to a medical examiner's office. Nineteen American flags were brought to the scene, one to be draped over each man's body.
A week later, the fire these men died fighting burns on, although it is almost fully contained. It claimed property as well as lives, destroying more than 100 homes.
Autopsies of the 19 firefighters have been conducted, and an investigation into what happened here begun. But answers aren't expected still for months.
For now, these towns and these families can only grieve.