Granite Mountain Hotshots: Five years on, Dustin DeFord's family finds peace in faith

Alden Woods
The Republic | azcentral.com
Dustin DeFord was one of 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.

All summer, Celeste DeFord prayed for her children. She closed her eyes and clasped her hands and asked God to lead them to righteousness. But in those hot months of 2013, when wildfires burned across the West and her boys raced to contain them, she couldn't pray for their protection. 

Each time she tried, the words fizzled in her mind. "I didn't have peace," she said. “I didn’t have a sense that I was allowed to pray for their physical safety.”

It had never happened before. Theirs was a family of faith and fire, and Celeste had grown used to soothing her anxieties with prayer. Her husband, Steve, volunteered on the local fire crew. Most of their 10 children did the same, and now three sons were in their rookie seasons on fire crews: Kenton in Alaska, Ryan in Oregon and Dustin in Arizona, with a young but elite crew.

They called themselves the Granite Mountain Hotshots. By the end of June, the world would know their names.

Dustin was their fifth child, a hyperactive mess of red hair who sometimes preached at his father’s church in tiny Ekalaka, Montana. At 18, he joined the volunteer fire department, clearing brush from the forests that encircled Carter County. Then he left for Bible college. A career in ministry awaited.

But he wasn't ready. Dustin told his father he still needed to grow up, to mature, to see the world the way his future congregations would. There was life outside Montana. Life outside the church. 

MORE:  'Alone on the Hill': Granite Mountain Hotshots driven by greater forces 

Fire drew him into that life, carrying him to Prescott and the hotshot crew. The title "hotshot" was reserved for firefighters closest to the flames, deployed to carve away potential fuel and contain wildfires on the ground. It was a dangerous job.

Steve and Celeste knew the risks. Other sons had seen death draw near. But the hotshots were an elite crew, and Dustin was a good firefighter. So on that last weekend in June 2013, as Dustin’s new crew moved toward the fire on a hill above a town called Yarnell, his parents saw little reason to track their progress.

'Have you seen the news?'

Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighter Dustin Deford died fighting the Yarnell Hills Fire June 30, 2013.

Sundays were the DeFords’ days to disconnect from the world. Their TV sat dark. Emails often went unchecked. 

Church dominated the day. The DeFords began that morning with a "singspiration" church service, watching four local congregations gather in worship. Their youngest son stood and performed " 'Til the Storm Passes By," a song by the Gaither Vocal Band. Steve gave a sermon, its subject long forgotten. Then they drove home.

They had no idea of the news slowly spreading across the country: that the mountain winds had turned in Yarnell and blown a fast-moving fire back toward the hotshots, that Dustin and his crew were trapped at the bottom of a hill, forced into a tight circle beneath flimsy emergency shelters as everything disappeared into flames.

Friends and family saw the reports, but didn’t call. Nobody knew what to say. Almost three hours passed before a family friend — the former president of Dustin’s Bible college — called Steve.

Have you seen the news? 

Steve said he hadn’t.

Granite Mountain was burned over, the man told him. One survivor.

READ MORE:  An untold story from the day 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died

The DeFords sat at two computers and tried to piece together the stories. Panic rose. Online they found a mess of conflicting reports. Little was official. There were rumors that nobody had survived, then more rumors that the only survivor wasn’t even a hotshot. 

Ryan, their fourth child, knew first.

“He’s gone,” he told his parents over the phone.

They didn’t know what to do. Maybe there was nothing to do. Dustin’s body was 1,200 miles away. Their phones rang and rang. People called because they heard there was an accident. They heard the name “DeFord,” and called Ryan to ask which one. Later, the Carter County Sheriff knocked and made official what they already knew.

Sometime that night, as the Yarnell Hill Fire continued its careless march through central Arizona, Steve and Celeste carried themselves to bed. But sleep never arrived. They waited for the sun to rise over their first day without Dustin, and all night Celeste’s mind replayed the song her son had chosen that morning. 

When the long night has ended and the storm comes no more, her mind repeated, let me stand in Thy presence on that bright peaceful shore.

'Prescott Fire has the thing for you'

Five years have passed since that sleepless night. The DeFords have mostly kept to themselves. They stayed away from public platforms, avoiding the nationwide debates over who to blame and how to prevent the next Yarnell. Steve and Celeste met the lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, and took comfort in his apparent peace.

They hiked into Granite Mountain Hotshot State Park and toured the set of "Only the Brave," making sure the movie captured their son’s true character. Steve was always wary of Hollywood. He thought the movie had too much cursing, but otherwise told the story truthfully.

Dustin’s character barely appeared in the film. Steve counted only a couple of lines. But, he had to admit, the actor did look like his son. 

The DeFord boys shared those same features. That red hair, those thick beards. They spent their childhoods hunting and wrestling, then kept in touch with a family Facebook group they called The DeFord Grapevine, sharing recipes and updates on their rookie fire seasons.

“All three of us were rooking our first year, all with Type I crews,” Ryan said. “So we were pretty stoked.”

Two of them were supposed to be together.

After his college graduation, Dustin scanned the West for hotshot openings. He wanted to avoid federal crews, but that left few options. Most local departments were ragtag groups, pulled together in makeshift mixtures of structure firefighters and community volunteers. Dustin wanted the best.

Ryan pointed him to Prescott. He had moved to Arizona two years earlier, taking control of the Lewis prison fire unit, and watched as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only municipal hotshot team in the country, built themselves into one of the state’s elite crews. He counted a few of them as friends.

READ:  5 years later: 5 new things about the Yarnell Hill Fire

“Prescott Fire has the thing for you,” Ryan told his brother, and in 2012 they tried out for Granite Mountain together. Both brothers passed the physical tests. Both were cut after their interviews.

They planned to try again. But before they could, a spot opened with the Malheur Rappel Crew, an Oregon unit that dropped from helicopters into wildfires. Ryan took it. Dustin stayed in Arizona.

He passed the tests on his second try, and in 2013 Dustin joined Granite Mountain.

By June, Dustin had established himself within Granite Mountain’s 20-man team. He was the rookie who seemed to always have a Bible, who asked his crewmates about their faith and prayed before heading into a fire.

He chose firefighting to mature, but the work changed his body. New muscle built under his yellow suit, carved into place by a month spent digging fire lines.

He added 10 pounds in the first month, he texted Ryan on June 29. Ryan called him a fatty. “Typical brother stuff,” he later said. They talked about how they had just worked on the same fire, but didn’t come close to crossing paths.

The next day, the Granite Mountain Hotshots headed south, toward the little town called Yarnell.

It could have happened to anyone

They wanted to grieve at home. The DeFords were small-town people with a small-town church, and that was enough for them. Dustin’s death, they believed, was a personal tragedy. Their family was large enough. They didn’t need more mourners.

But their son no longer belonged only to them. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, a liaison from the government told them, had become national figures. There was to be a funeral in Prescott. Vice President Joe Biden was going to be there. A billionaire offered his private plane to carry them to Arizona.

Dustin DeFord was one of 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shots who died in 2013 while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire.

So they flew to Prescott, sat for the funeral and quickly returned to Ekalaka, where their house filled with weeks' worth of donated meals. They surrounded themselves with believers and thanked God that they had only lost one son.

"We've always said this was a mercy from the Lord," Steve said. "We feel very fortunate that we only had one there."

Ryan fought off the creeping sense of responsibility, the urge to blame himself for pulling his brother to Prescott and leaving him there.

“I had to convince myself not to feel guilty,” he said. He tried to see the fire objectively, to look at it with a firefighter's eye. Something went wrong. But it could have happened to any crew. Later, he turned it into an example for his firefighting trainees.

But first he had to go back to work. The day after Dustin’s funeral drew a line of cars through Ekalaka, Ryan and his mother left for the Billings airport. Both tried not to worry. An unspoken fear lingered between mother and son. Soon the car slowed to a stop. Ryan walked into the airport, bound for another faraway fire, and all his mother could do was pray.