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Sole survivor of Yarnell Hill Fire acknowledges the last decade has been tough


Today is the 10th anniversary of one of the deadliest days in the history of wildland firefighting. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting team, died in 2013 battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. One crew member survived, and it's been a hard decade for him. Ryan Heinsius of our member station KNAU in Flagstaff reports from where the tragedy unfolded.

RYAN HEINSIUS, BYLINE: This is steep country for sure. It's hard to imagine firefighting here. All along the trail, there are things that people have left here, little mementos or just decorations. And here's a little - it's almost like a mobile with little plastic hummingbirds clinking together in the breeze.

On my way back down, I meet Charlie Joel (ph), a retiree from Sun City, Ariz. Like many people, he's captivated by the story, which he read about in a book written by Brendan McDonough, the sole surviving Granite Mountain Hotshot.

CHARLIE JOEL: Mr. McDonough, I'm just like, you know, I can only imagine what he's going through. These gentlemen, you know, they're heroes in the true sense of the word.

HEINSIUS: In the aftermath of the incident, overcome by grief and survivor's guilt, McDonough found himself at the center of a maelstrom of international attention.

BRENDAN MCDONOUGH: For so long, I thought the man that I was, you know, June 29, 2013, would never come back again and I would never be better than that person, you know? I didn't think it was OK to be happy and enjoy life because they weren't here to live it. And that was tough. That was tough for a while.

HEINSIUS: For years after Yarnell Hill, McDonough struggled with PTSD and alcoholism. And it was through therapy and faith that he learned how to cope with the experience and move forward.

MCDONOUGH: Sometimes trauma keeps us stuck. Loss and grief keeps us stuck. You know, we need help. We can't do this on our own. And the expectation to do it on your own is unrealistic when we face hard, difficult times.

HEINSIUS: In the dark days following the Yarnell Hill Fire, Prescott Fire Captain Dan Bauman was assigned as the official liaison for McDonough, often talking on the phone late into the night. I catch up with him at a nearby firehouse.

DAN BAUMAN: Obviously, he was going through so much, I mean, lost his 19 closest friends. I mean, when you're on a crew like that, you're almost like family, like brothers.

HEINSIUS: Bauman, a former member of the crew, was on duty that day when the terrible news came over the radio. He and several others would be tasked with the grim job of recovering their colleagues' remains.

BAUMAN: Ten years later, it's still just shocking to me. And it was hard to even take in. I've suffered significant PTSD from the incident ever since then. It took me a while to, you know, acknowledge or recognize it.

HEINSIUS: Like McDonough, Bauman eventually sought therapy and says the fact that he can even talk about the incident is a tribute to years of hard work.

BAUMAN: Still, even 10 years later, there's almost not a day that goes by that I don't think about the crew or a member of the crew or it doesn't have some impact on me.

HEINSIUS: Both Bauman and McDonough agree that prioritizing mental health is paramount in the firefighting world, especially in the wake of unspeakable tragedies like the loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. McDonough says it's helped him get to a much better place.

MCDONOUGH: As I approach the 10 year, just a lot of gratitude for the life that I live today. There are certain emotions or certain feelings and memories that just sometimes don't lose their sting.

HEINSIUS: A decade after the Yarnell Hill tragedy, Brendan McDonough and Dan Bauman are in better places now. But they know that day in Yarnell will be with them the rest of their lives.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Heinsius.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR News and National Native News.