Refined by the Yarnell wildfire’s flames

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 3rd. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we’re so glad you are! 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: survival and recovery.

In 2013, a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters. It was the deadliest day for emergency responders since 9-11.

Only one crew member survived. WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg brings us his story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: From a young age, Brendan McDonough dreamed of being a firefighter. He wanted to protect his community. 

But a difficult home life and bad choices made that dream seem out of his reach.

MCDONOUGH: At a pretty young age, about 13, I started using substances to just cope with life problems. I just continued to fuel that addiction throughout high school. 

After highschool, McDonough couldn’t shake his addiction. He went to college, flunked out of class and got in trouble with the law. He spent a week in a jail. At the same time, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. 

He wanted to provide for his new daughter. But who would take a chance on hiring a guy on probation with a felony? 

MCDONOUGH: I applied for jobs and got denied. I was like, well, I guess I’m just supposed to live this lifestyle of using and, you know, trying to hustle money.

Then he heard about some openings on the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

MCDONOUGH: Hot shots are kind of just an elite branch of the wildfire community. We’re fighting fire with fire, we’re fighting with chainsaws, hand tools, helicopters and communication with them.

But Brendan McDonough didn’t think he could do something so physically demanding. He was skinny and out of shape and still trying to detox. When he pulled up to the fire station to turn in his application, he almost kept going. 

MCDONOUGH: And instantly I think of like, I’ve got to support my daughter. And Eric Marsh, the Superintendent catches me at the door. And he says, We’ve got one open slot, come sit down and do an interview.

And I tell him I want to be the dad that I didn’t have and I want to change my life. And so he’s kind of sitting there looking around and he goes, all right. If you can keep up, you’ve got a job. But the moment you quit, you’re done.

As a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, McDonough spent half the year fighting fires all over the country. The crew became his family. 

MCDONOUGH: Just some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever been in with some of the most amazing human beings that were fathers, believers, community members, so much more than just a firefighter.

Halfway through his third fire season, the crew deployed to Yarnell, Arizona. 

Lightning had sparked a blaze in the hills around the town. 

MCDONOUGH: We get our debriefing. We get hiked in. And we get to the top of the mountain… 

Superintendent Eric Marsh made McDonough the crew’s lookout. So McDonough took a position further down the mountain where he could take weather measurements and watch the fire’s movement. 

By late afternoon, the wind—and the fire—started to shift.

MCDONOUGH: I’m starting to feel and see these wind shifts, kind of come back in my face, so I’m relaying to my superintendent this fire starts moving in a different direction. 

 The fire started moving toward McDonough’s position. 

MCDONOUGH: And my captain radios down and he says I think it is about time for you to get out of there. 

Another hotshot crew was working near McDonough. So he jumped in with them and headed down into town to help save threatened homes. 

AUDIO: [Sound of firefighting]

In the meantime, the Granite Mountain Hotshots also decided to hike down from their position on a ridge toward a ranch outside of Yarnell. Crews had dubbed the ranch a fire safety zone. 

But as the crew descended, they lost sight of the blaze. They couldn’t see the fire was growing quicker than anyone predicted and heading straight for them.

AUDIO: [Sound of fire]

All of a sudden, the fire trapped them in a basin between ridges. 

AUDIO: Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front! 

Down in town, McDonough heard Superintendent Marsh over the radio…

AUDIO: Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment sight. 

The crew members were deploying their aluminum fire shelter sacks. That’s a firefighters’ last resort.

MCDONOUGH: I’m sitting there thinking to myself, what’s going on? How did this happen? This is not looking good. 

For what felt like hours, McDonough waited for a helicopter to locate the hotshots. When it did, the news was devastating. The fire had burned too hot and for too long. 

MCDONOUGH: And he comes on the radio, and he goes I’ve got 19 confirmed and it clicked with me that they just passed away. There’s nothing more that I could do but I felt like I should have done more. I felt like I should have been there. 

Survivor’s guilt overwhelmed and crippled McDonough. He turned to drinking. He couldn’t understand why God spared him. 

MCDONOUGH: Like, why couldn’t you have just taken the addict?

McDonough became suicidal. He felt like he couldn’t keep going. But a local pastor refused to give up on him. 

MCDONOUGH: A Pastor kept meeting with me. And he’s like, hey, Brendan, what? What’s your hang up? I said, I’ve done some things that I’m not proud of in my past. I feel like I’ve got to get my life in order before I’m ready to commit to being a follower of Jesus. And he goes, I think you I think you’ve got it wrong, man. Jesus came for the broken. He came for the lost, he left the 99 for the one.

Four years after the Yarnell Hill fire, Brendan McDonough gave his life to God.

Nine months into sobriety, McDonough sensed God telling him he needed to open a Christian addiction and mental health center. He couldn’t see how he was equipped, but he obeyed.

MCDONOUGH: Alright, God, you’ve gotten me this far, and I was pretty messed up. So if you could do that, I know you could get me through to this treatment center that you’re calling me to do. 

Holdfast Recovery opened two-and-a-half years ago. McDonough says watching God heal other people is helping him heal too. 

MCDONOUGH: He’s continued to help me change and evolve and to get married, to have a third child. And to continue to serve others in a different capacity that I never could have imagined.

And he knows he will be with his Granite Mountain brothers again soon.

MCDONOUGH: I know this time on this earth is a very small blimp. I know I’ll see them again and be in their presence, but most importantly, in God’s presence and his love. In the meantime, stay present, stay focused and be that be that man that God intended me to be.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(AP Photo/Matt York) A flag sits at the base of a flag pole at the site where 19 firefighters died battling an Arizona wildfire on June 30th is shown Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Yarnell, Ariz. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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