PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- They trained their eyes on the mountain that smoldered in the distance as they carved a path through a forest choked by fire and drought. Packs sagged from their backs, heavy with the gear frontline firefighters must carry: pickaxes, temperature gauges, spades, radios, plenty of water.
Down in the valley, a village burned. "This is pretty wild," one of the firefighters, Andrew Ashcraft, wrote in a text message to his wife, Juliann, at 2:02 p.m. last Sunday as the team continued its fateful march through the wilderness.
Three minutes later and 130 miles away, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Flagstaff spotted trouble on the radar: thunderstorms and dangerous winds heading toward the firefighters. He picked up the phone and alerted the fire's dispatch center. Officials at the center transmit information by radio to the firefighters. The meteorologist called the center again at 3:30 p.m.
It is unclear at this point whether the firefighters ever received those messages.
At 3:19 p.m., Mr. Ashcraft sent another message to his wife: "I would love some rain over here."
Juliann Ashcraft never heard from her husband again.
All but one of the 20 members of the team, a highly skilled fire suppression squad known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, lost their lives June 30 in the mountains 32 miles southwest of Prescott.
Investigators are now beginning the task, which will take months, of unraveling how a routine afternoon of cutting fire lines along the edge of a community threatened by flames turned into the deadliest day for wilderness firefighters in 80 years. What caused the tragedy is still unknown. But in recent years, fires like the one that engulfed the Granite Mountain Hotshots have become more frequent and more dangerous, straining the men on the front line and the logistical infrastructure that stands behind them.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots spent the weeks before the Yarnell Hill fire, as the blaze that killed them is known, fighting a wildfire in New Mexico and another one in the Prescott National Forest, just northwest of their fire station in town.
Doce, as the Prescott blaze was called, had been a difficult fire, both for the crews battling it and the dispatchers trying to track the movements and needs of aircraft, engines and hundreds of firefighters. As the Hotshots carried their chain saws to Doce's western edge, dispatchers faced serious technical challenges. Telephone calls were being disconnected or were not going through. A computerized system that helps the dispatchers track crews was "giving all kinds of error messages," a frustrated dispatcher said in a report logged on June 18 by the National Interagency Fire Center, a multiagency logistical support center.
Communication problems made up half of the complaints reported to the interagency fire center last year, according to a study by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which manages programs, policies and training for wilderness firefighting. In the last two months alone, wilderness firefighters and Forest Service employees across the West repeatedly complained about problems with communications, in some cases pleading that malfunctions be fixed before something terrible happened.
Another common complaint was that firefighters were being pushed beyond exhaustion or were being asked to work in unsafe conditions.
It is too early to tell if any of these problems were a factor in the deaths of the 19 Hotshots fighting the Yarnell Hill fire.
"I am not aware of any communication issues on June 30," said Randall Eardley, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center. "But that is something the investigation team will certainly look into."
Carl Schwope, a fire operations section chief on the Yarnell Hill fire, said Wednesday that fire commanders had posted two radio repeaters -- combination receiver-transmitters that improve low radio signals -- atop the mountains near the fire to help relay signals into valleys and ravines.
The repeaters were installed Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Schwope said, after the Hotshots were already dead. (A team of federal agencies took control of the fire's operations July 1, after it was elevated to a Type 1 incident, a category reserved for the biggest or most complex fires. The designation had been made Sunday before the thunderstorms materialized on the radar, but it took time for the team to assemble.)
Mr. Schwope, a member of the new command team, said he did not know anything about the lines of communication for the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30.He said, however, that crews were taught not to confront a fire if they could not talk to their command centers.
Experts say that wildfires across the West are becoming increasingly dangerous and unpredictable adversaries. They are burning bigger today than they were 30 years ago, a result of persistent drought and overgrown vegetation, which have led to longer and hotter fire seasons. To make matters worse, budgets for managing forests to reduce risk have been cut or siphoned off to help cover the increased cost of fire suppression.
This winter, a fire continued to burn inside Rocky Mountain National Park even after the snows arrived. And as development pushes deeper into the wild, fire experts say, more houses will be destroyed and more firefighters will be put at risk trying to protect homes and residents from the flames.
The area around the Yarnell Hill fire had not burned in about 40 years. Dried and thick in some spots, the vegetation there was ready to ignite at the first spark.
A bolt of lightning struck at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, June 28, west of State Highway 89 between the old gold-mining villages of Yarnell and Peeples Valley in central Arizona. It was a small fire at first, 200 acres. By Sunday, June 30, it had grown tenfold, and the flames were heading straight toward Peeples Valley. The Granite Mountain Hotshots went to fight it, marching into the hills in stifling heat.
Firefighters at the Yarnell Hill blaze June 30 spoke with awe at how the winds suddenly swung around lifting tents, swaying portable toilets and rattling grounded air tankers. In Yarnell, residents who had been given three hours to evacuate were forced to pack up and leave in 30 minutes when the wind, as Adria Shayne, 52, described it, "did a horseshoe and came right onto us."
First Published July 7, 2013 4:00 AM