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10 Years of Reflection for Yarnell Hill Fire Survivor Brendan McDonough

Brendan McDonough was the only one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to survive the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.

Now, ten years later, he can look back at the last decade and his fight for today.

“Every mirror you look in, there you are,” says McDonough. “Like, you can go wherever you want and what’s in your head doesn’t leave.” 

ABC15 caught up with him in his hometown of Prescott, where he admits for years after the Yarnell Hill fire, he wanted to run away.

“Early on it was really difficult,” he said. “Like, I stopped going out to eat. Stopped going to the grocery store. Stopped doing multiple things, and it was… it was tough. And it wasn’t that it was negative. It was just like, every time someone would say, ‘Hey aren’t you, Brendan Mcdonough? Like, we’re thinking about you. We’re praying for you.’ or like they’re crying and I’m trying to choke back my tears and like keep a straight, stoic face because I have no clue how to react to this. Like, it was just another trigger.”

He was just 21 at the time of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Afterward, he says he faced depression, PTSD, and thoughts of suicide.

“How do you look back on these past 10 years?” ABC15 asked.

“Chunks. Yeah. Like, three-to-four-year chunks,” McDonough said. “Like, year one to three: hell. Like, four: bearable, but still suffering. You know? Four, five, six: pretty tough, you know. But I’ve just picked up six years in March of sobriety. So, I’ve been kind of on this journey since then, and prior to that, I started some counseling too. So, like the last six, seven years have been pretty good.”

Part of his sobriety has been creating ‘Hold Fast Recovery,’ an addiction treatment center for men.

“Like half the clients don’t even know who I am, like from that standpoint of like, you know, there’s a book,” says McDonough. “There’s a movie. He’s this lone survivor, and it’s not that I don’t share about it, but it’s like, is that what I want to lead with in life? Like, you know, I want them to know me more than that. It’s a huge part of my life. And it’s massive. And you see people that find fame and take advantage of that. And it’s like, I’ve become famous for something I don’t want to be famous for. Right? It’s different if you save someone’s life or you go through this heroic thing. But to be the one person that survived, like, that’s a race no one wants to win. You really want to start that marathon? And so, for me, that’s been important to this entire decade is like, humility. You know, like, my actions impact more than just myself. Their legacy, you know, their children when they grow old enough and can comprehend, like did Brendan waste his life or did he spend it worth living?”

“I don’t take that pressure, but I’m aware of that,” he adds, “Like, it’s not my job to please everyone, but in turn by living a good life and being a man of integrity. Being a man like my brothers, and I get to hopefully make people proud.”

A big part of that life is being a husband, a dad to three kids, and setting clear goals for himself.

“I read one of your 2023 goals, let me read it… to see if I have a future with the fire service?” ABC15 asked.

“Yeah,” says McDonough, “Not if I can do it, but do I want to and can I? Can I close that chapter and be fine with that, with not pursuing a career in the structure side of things?”

“Did you ever fight another fire after that day?”

“No,” says McDonough.

Now, he’s rewriting the ending of his story on his own terms and never letting us all forget his 19 brothers he lost ten years ago.

“What do you want people to remember about them?” ABC15 asked.

“Their sacrifice, their sense of duty, and the love they had for their families and those they served,” says McDonough.

He says a great place for people to go and learn about the Granite Mountain Hotshots is the tribute center located inside Prescott Mall.

“They’ve done such an amazing job of capturing just my brother’s life,” says McDonough. “But they need support you know, to be able to continue that going, and they have such an amazing heart.”

He says the goal is to eventually expand to honor even more firefighters.

“It’s not only just my brothers they’re wanting to honor,” McDonough says. “It’s the wildland service as a whole and education and so there’s such an amazing opportunity to be a part of something that I think can make a tremendous impact. Not just in Prescott, but the entire state of Arizona. You know, for kids to be able to take a field trip to a facility like that to learn about something that impacts us every day.”

To learn more about the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew Learning and Tribute Center, click here.