Young men and fire
" where nothing much was left of the elite but courage struggling for oxygen "
When news bulletins began reporting the tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were battling the huge Yarnell Hill blaze outside Prescott, Arizona, last week, I became overwhelmed with déjà vu. How could this have happened again?
My knee-jerk reaction to these events is always the same. What is it about our value system that makes it so easy for us to send young men and women into harm’s way to save property where subdivisions like Yarnell’s "Glen Ilah" butt-up against wild lands? It seems that all too often for these elite teams, even when all the latest safety protocols are followed, chaos finds a way to prevail.
Or as Tim Egan put it in his recent New York Times blog: "Once again, the question hangs over another of the oft-lovely places where fire is at the top of the predator chain: what did they die for? Young men trained to be the best of the best are not supposed to take their last breaths inside the oven of a foil shelter, facedown in hot ground, gasping through the roar of a blowup."
It’s easy to sense the exasperation of someone like Egan, who authored "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America." Just the sheer immersion of researching and then chronicling the 1910 inferno that consumed three million acres of Idaho, Montana, and Washington must have left him with a short fuse.
Already well aware of Montana’s Mann Gulch fire from 1949, which took 12 smokejumpers and one forest ranger, and the relatively small (2,000 acres) 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., that led to the death of 14 "Hotshots" from Prineville, Oregon, each ensuing "event" must bring him closer to the edge.
A literature of wild lands-firefighting deaths and the conflagrations that caused them has almost become a cottage industry. Norman Maclean, author of "A River Ran Through It," told the story of Mann Gulch in his posthumously published "Young Men and Fire" which came out in 1994.
And then it was only about a half-dozen years later when his son John Maclean wrote his own book, "Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire." Of course, we who are obsessed with wildfire gobble up each succeeding account in not much more time than it takes dry scrub oak, pinyon pine and juniper to ignite in flames.
The deaths of the four U.S. Forest Service firefighters who were killed while battling the 2001 Thirty Mile Fire in Washington’s Okanogan County did not fit this pattern, however, in that no structures were in close proximity to the blaze. This fire was fought due to it being human-caused a camper’s fire that got out of control. A lightning-caused fire in the same area would have been allowed to burn.
Not so, with the recent lightning-caused blaze in Arizona, however. This suppression effort was to protect homes built in the outback. And we will no doubt find out all the particulars once the narrative surrounding the Yarnell Hill catastrophe gets put to print. As they say, if we don’t learn from history, it will surely repeat itself. But just how long is that learning curve?
With me, it’s the ethic that they have yet to construct a building that’s worth a human life. The intruder is the developer, not the natural cycle of wildfires.
Egan continued: "But as to the question, the why of their deaths: every homeowner in the arid lands owes these fallen men an answer. More than ever, wild land firefighters die for people’s summer homes and year-round retreats. They die protecting property, kitchen views, dreams cast in stucco and timber."
Over on the Heber Valley side of the Wasatch Back, the memories are still fresh of the August 1990 Midway Fire in Wasatch Mountain State Park and the two local men who became trapped when the winds shifted in both direction and speed. Ralph Broadhead and Blake Wright were working on a firebreak with a bulldozer to protect "the wild land-urban interface" when the fire rolled over them.
Sheer naiveté got me through my own season of fighting wildfires. No one is more bulletproof than an eighteen-year-old between high school and the military and such was the case when I got a Forest Service gig in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest of northern Idaho during one long-ago summer. Although I’m sure that if I’d really had a clue, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun.
That’s the hard part to come to terms with. To paraphrase Norman Maclean, eventually all things merge into one, and fire, and young men and women, run through it.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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