Saying Goodby To The Hotshots



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK


            In my almost 33 years as a firefighter, the biggest brush fire I ever fought covered around 100 acres. It took hours and several fire departments to bring under control.

There are 640 acres in a square mile.

            The fire that killed 19 firefighters in Arizona on the last day of June burned 13 square miles, in its first day. It was just getting started.

            Just wrap your mind around the size of this fire. The average wildland fire in the West last year got up to 330 acres, but that includes all the slower moving ones, or the ones close to urban areas that could get stomped down in a hurry.

            When you can’t stomp it down in a hurry, you call in the Hotshots.

            There are only about 110 Hotshot crews in the entire country, each of them with about 20 members. If Smoke Jumpers are the paratroopers of the fire service, then Hotshots are the Navy SEALS, taking point and going in to those places no one else can seem to reach. They leave not just roads, but trails, wading into the wild with fifty pounds of equipment: tools, radios, first aid equipment, food, water, everything they need to survive alone.

            That includes emergency fire shelters, which, as we’ve learned the hard way, are last resorts that don’t always help.

            At the end of a workday they don’t stop working. They can disappear into the forest for days at a time, eating cold rations, forgoing showers, sleeping on the ground, missing their families for weeks. They’re tough, skilled, alert, and they have to be.

            They’re the elite. The elite go in harm’s way, and that’s why the elite sometimes die.

            It was the worst day for firefighters since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It was the most line of duty deaths caused by a single wildfire in 80 years, since 29 died fighting one in Los Angeles.

            It’s so easy to throw out numbers, isn’t it?

            I think the number that affected me the most was one. Nineteen of the 20 member Hotshot team died in a sudden wind shift, when the fire rolled back and overtook them. The last member wasn’t close by – he was a mile away with the team’s truck, at the time. Imagine how he feels? The only survivor, by sheer chance. He probably wishes right now that he’d been with his comrades. I’m not sure there’s anything that will ever take that man’s pain away.

            How about the three firefighters whose sons were on the Granite Mountain Hotshots team? I’ll bet you couldn’t have drug those young men away from firefighting with a team of Clydesdales, but that’s not what their fathers are thinking. Those dads will wonder why they didn’t talk their sons out of following in their footsteps.

            Imagine what it’s like to live in the community of Prescott, Arizona?

            Prescott, a city of less than 40,000, is the home of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew. They’re the first ever municipal Hotshots (most are federal), part of a 92 member fire department. The Hotshots had to work and train hard for five years before they got that title.

            Did you know annual firefighter deaths in America were on a downward trend? We’d been averaging around a hundred a year, but in 2012 it dropped to 64, according to the National Fire Protection Association. It was the fourth year in a row below triple digits. (30 of those lost in 2012 were volunteers.)

            And now nineteen in one fire.

            And … and I don’t have the heart to do any more research.

            I was supposed to go up to my fire station the next night, Monday. I’d received the shipment of my book, and was going to bring a box full to distribute to the firefighters who wanted one. But I just didn’t have it in me; I didn’t want to face anyone. I figured they’d understand about the book – it’ll still be there, and in the scheme of things it’s not a big deal. But whenever something like this happens it just brings back all the bad things I’ve seen, and sometimes experienced, in the emergency services. I didn’t feel up to dealing with it.

Later there’ll be a time when I stand before them and say, “that could be us”. Not a fire of that ferocity, of course, but all too often it’s not the spectacular that kills firefighters, it’s the mundane. A traffic accident, a building collapse during overhaul, a heart attack after returning to the station. Being fatalistic doesn’t cut it anymore, not when people are depending on you. You have to be a little paranoid – you have to take the minor stuff seriously, along with the major stuff.

And that’s my lecture, I guess. You could boil the whole thing down to “treasure each moment, and be careful”. Seems like I’ve written too many columns like this over the years, but it’s cheaper than therapy.

It would be nice if I didn’t have to write one again, for a while.

6 comments:

  1. I've read enough, and seen enough in the way of news reports over the years to be astonished at the sort of front line forest firefighters who do this. What happened in that fire just breaks the heart.

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    1. They're a special breed, that's for sure.

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  2. A beautiful tribute. I've always stood in awe of these men who bravely face fires. Nothing easy about that.

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    1. No, nothing easy at all -- and yet, that's what they lived for.

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