For firefighters, answer to why is: Someone has to
Prescott, Ariz. • In his book, Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean attempted to convey what a crew experiences in the chaos of a mountain firestorm.
"It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the smoke only occasionally lifts," the late Montana author wrote, "and when it does all that can be seen are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you burning cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller."
In American culture, the firefighter is almost a mythic being. Immortalized in movies such as "Hellfighters," "Backdraft" and "Ladder 49," they do things that most people could never conceive of doing. They are, as we see time and again, the first ones into a disaster and the last ones out.
It is no different in the wildland firefighting community, where men and women armed with little more than axes, shovels and chain saws face mountainsides engulfed in flames and, somehow, hope to bring that force of nature to heel.
"You ask yourself: Why are these people willing to put their lives on the line? For people they don't even know?" retired teacher Sharon Owsley asked last week as she stood on the courthouse square in this town north of Phoenix. "Why do they even do this kind of work that's so highly dangerous? Every day it might not be. But then there's that one day that you may not come home."
For 19 members of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots, that day came June 30, when they were overrun while battling a blaze on a ridge in nearby Yarnell. On Tuesday, firefighters from across the nation will join with the men's families, Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries to honor the men.
The elite Hotshot community is a small one there are some 110 crews of 20 nationwide, the vast majority of them west of the Mississippi River. So veteran wildland firefighter Patrick Moore was not surprised to see the names of several friends on the list of the dead.
Moore understands why some might wonder: Why do this? Surely no amount of money or adrenaline rush could be worth the risk of marching up a slope into the maw of death. He said an old joke helps him to keep things in perspective.
"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," said Moore, superintendent of the Pleasant Valley Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Mesa. "You just chink off a little bit and chink off a little more. And when you get 20 people all firing with some synergy, those 20 bites at a time add up. And before you know it, you're around the fire."
For many, like the three Prescott crew members who were following in their fathers' footsteps, firefighting is literally in their blood. Others, like Brandon Hess, are drawn by a sense of duty.
"I love the outdoors and I love feeling that I have a part in protecting the public lands out there," Hess, superintendent of the Tatanka Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Custer, S.D., said last week from the front lines of a wildfire in Colorado.
To Moore, the Hotshots' motto says it all: "Safety, Teamwork, Professionalism."
"When you become a Hotshot, it becomes a part of you," the 40-year-old former logger said. "It isn't just a job."
And there is nothing romantic about it.
For a Hotshot crew, a typical day begins before dawn. Wearing hard hats, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and thick boots in triple-digit temperatures, the teams cut through swaths of land for hours on end, said Eric Neitzel, a veteran firefighter with U.S. Forest Service.
"It's the worst yard work you've ever done, all day, times a thousand," said Neitzel. "They sleep outside on the line sometimes. No showers for weeks, very little change of clothes. ... You've got dirt in your nails, dirt in your ears, down your shirt, down your neck."
"Hottest, deepest, nastiest," said Moore, who's been with the Pleasant Valley crew 16 years. "That's where we go."
The fare is often a military-style MRE meals ready to eat. Even downtime is spent sharpening tools, restocking backpacks and replenishing water supplies, Neitzel said.
And, if they're lucky, these crews may never even see the flames.
"There are times where you might only see smoke, you're so far away from the fire," said Hess, who became a firefighter right out of high school and is in his 15th year as a Hotshot. "And then there's days when you're right on the edge of the fire. It just depends on the complexity."
As an engine man with the Prescott National Forest, Ryan Phillips worked alongside Hotshots on several occasions. He compares them with the military's special forces.
"They're the first ones in, and they're usually the last ones out," said Phillips, who now works for a telecommunications company. "You're either going to love it or you're going to hate it, the first day you are on a fire. And the ones that love it aren't there for the adrenaline. They're there for what it means to them to help somebody else in some way."
The pay is nice, around $25 an hour with a lot of overtime and hazardous duty pay, said Neitzel. Some work almost nonstop through the summer, then vacation overseas come winter, he said.
But many like some of those who died fighting the lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill Fire have families.
Hess fell in love with the outdoors at 4, when his father began taking him into the woods to hunt, fish and dig for arrowheads. When a cousin told him stories about life on the Hotshot crews, he was hooked.
Now 35, Hess has five children under the age of 12 and another due in October. The time away takes its toll.
"I haven't had a summer with them yet, aside from when we get days off. ... They know what I do," he said of his family. "And they respect that."
Moore said his fiancee, a federal wildlife biologist, knew what she was in for when she started dating a Hotshot. Despite the hardships, Moore said there is an esprit de corps that you can't find in any other job.
"I could never create ... as colorful and diverse characters as what you work with in the wildland fire service," said Moore, who once studied fiction writing. "I can't think of a finer bunch of people to do what we do with."
At a community meeting last week at Prescott High School, displaced residents from Yarnell and Peeples Valley gave the fallen men a standing ovation. Peeples Valley resident Shirley Prentice recalled her youngest son once talking about trying out for the Hotshots. Fearing for his safety, she talked him out of it.
"These guys, they're the best of the best, is what they are," said Prentice, her eyes welling with tears. "We still have a home because they were out there."
Those who live in the expanse of pine, juniper and scrub oak around Yarnell know that fire is a constant threat. Every few miles, highway signs warn drivers of crosswinds and caution smokers, "Wildfire Danger Use Ashtray."
Stan Kephart, vice president of the Yarnell Water Board, knows how inhospitable the area can be. But he said the men who died knew the risks. And while no house is worth even one life, he's grateful there are people willing to put themselves between the fire and everything he's worked for.
"I was asked the other day, 'Do you plan on going back?'" he said. "If I was to not go back and live there, I'd be doing them a disservice. Just like if a service person goes overseas and defends our country, they don't do it for just themselves.
"They do it for us."
The investigation into what happened at Yarnell is only beginning. What officials do know is that the situation deteriorated rapidly, and that the 19 men had deployed their reflective safety shelters.
Although the Granite Mountain deaths have cast a pall over the firefighting community, Hess said those in the field "can't carry that stuff" with them.
But firefighters do.
Each year, the U.S. Forest Service marks the anniversary of the Aug. 5, 1949, Mann Gulch fire, in which 13 firefighters died when they were trapped in a blowup on a mountainside in Montana's Helena National Forest. It was that mishap that Maclean wrote about.
Three men survived, including foreman Wagner Dodge, who lit an escape fire and tried in vain to get the crew to join him. Maclean recounted Dodge's exasperation at trying to explain the inexplicable to a bunch of people who couldn't possibly imagine what he'd experienced a place "where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs."
"When asked by the Board of Review if he had explained to the men the danger they were in, (Dodge) looked at the Board in amazement, as if the Board had never been outside the city limits and wouldn't know sawdust if they saw it in a pile," Maclean wrote. "What could anybody hear? It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world."
Last week, as firefighters worked to contain the blaze that had killed their brothers, Jim Whittington, a veteran firefighter and member of the incident command team, invoked the memory of those losses of 64 years ago.
"One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is we don't forget," he said. "We make it a point of remembering things like Mann Gulch. ... And we will remember this one."