By Patricia Guthrie
Special to the Daily Sun
We had the same reaction no matter where we were or how we heard about the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30, 2013.
“Nineteen? It can’t be 19. That’d be an entire hotshot crew.”
It couldn’t be true because we couldn’t imagine it. Couldn’t fathom so many faces, so many futures lost to a wildfire so similar to the ones we had all faced sometime in our lives. How could 19 of our own be swallowed up and spit out by a rogue wave of fire? How could one moment they be so alive, so fit, so intrepid and the next, as still as the blackened earth? To be a part of that 19, to be the lone survivor, these are the thoughts consuming hotshot crews around the country, and the thousands who went before them loaded up with shovels and saws and 40-pound packs, any and all of us who’ve headed into the smoke for days and nights on end.
In 1984, I worked for the Flagstaff Hotshot crew, a group of 20 men and women (I was the first female hired onto that particular crew) and one of several U.S. Forest Service Interagency crews in Arizona.
We were based in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks in Coconino National Forest just outside the city of Flagstaff.
Like all hotshot crews, we thought we were the best — the toughest, the strongest, the smartest — the best of the best — or as the media likes to describe us — the “elite” among forces of highly-trained wilderness firefighters, first to arrive on the scene and last to put out the dying embers. Like the Granite Mountain Hotshots, we went through weeks of boot-camp style physical training and sat in outdoor classrooms where we learned about wild land fire management and suppression tactics. “Safety First” was not just a hollow mantra but ruled our every moment and mission as we got deposited by bus, helicopters and ancient military aircraft to one fire after another around the Western United States.
At times, the walk into the fire proved harder than containing the fire as hotshots typically march for miles into terrain inaccessible to vehicles. We learned emergency communication skills and how easily messages got mangled when passed down from one person to another, such as on a spread-out fire line.
Hotshot crews scrape away debris and fuel with hand tools to build a containment line around a blaze, usually tying into any existing old lumber roads or other natural fire breaks. Countless times, we practiced pulling out our fire shelters and diving into them in under 30 seconds under the eyes and stopwatch of a very serious-looking crew boss.
The lightweight, silver tarps are designed to reflect fire off the top and trap cool, breathable air inside. But the fire must pass over in seconds and not have any new fuel to stoke the heat and flames. Fire shelters can work, and have saved lives. In fact, they became mandatory to carry at all times after three men from another Arizona crew, the Mormon Lake Hotshots, were killed in Colorado on July 17, 1976. That fire’s investigation revealed the emergency tents “may have prevented deaths and serious burns,” but the crew left the shelters behind to lighten the load on their backs.
I was reminded of that fact by one of my fellow Flagstaff hotshots, whom I contacted after hearing the news from Yarnell. I had the urge to remember all the names and personalities of our 1984 crew and to commiserate with someone who knows what it’s like “to be a hotshot.” Ron and I laughed about all the pranks and jabbering and jabbing that went on during lighter moments, about surviving 16-hour shifts and then dropping our head and bones on some patch of hard ground to sleep. We remembered guessing which war’s supplies we were helping deplete during our many MRE (meals ready-to-eat) al fresco dinners.
But we are also angry, angry about the 19 fallen comrades, the 19 hearses, the 19 lives memorialized during Tuesday’s ceremony in Prescott Valley.
But who or what do we blame?
God? Global warming? The drought? Property owners?
Over the years, when I tell someone or they learn somehow — that I was a hotshot many many moons ago, their eyes grow wide in disbelief. But I just say it was another lifetime — 30 years and some 30 pounds ago. I did it, it was tough, I learned a lot, I survived, I decided one season was enough. It gave me a barometer of what true back-breaking physical labor really is. I experienced that soldiers’ sense of true camaraderie — developed during weeks of physical and mental preparation, followed by four months of exhausting deployments to Montana, California, New Mexico, Wyoming. Suddenly, the 19 strangers I met in April were the ones I relied on to watch my back.
In 1994, I wrote about the 14 firefighters killed in the Colorado blaze on Storm King Mountain, about how my heart sank even further upon hearing the names of the four women killed.
It was the first time female hotshots died in the line of duty and I remember feeling how my sense of “trailblazing” suddenly took on the toll of death. I helped lead the way for women to fight wild fires alongside men and, consequently, to die alongside them. It was rawer to me then, only 10 years had passed since I retired my yellow fire shirt, green pants and blue hardhat.
This time when I heard of hotshots dying in the blaze, I didn’t dwell on the moment, the circumstances, the unanswerable questions of their deaths. Instead I thought about how they’d never have the chance to look back, never be able to reminisce with their friends, their lovers, their children, their nieces, their nephews, their grandchildren, never be able to say: “I was a hotshot once. When I was young and so very much alive.”
Vaya con Dios, Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Patricia Guthrie is a freelance reporter living in Seattle, a former Harvard Nieman Fellow and a 1983 Northern Arizona University graduate. After stints as a hotshot, bartender and weenie-wagon vendor in Flagstaff, she put her journalism degree to use and began freelancing about the Navajo Nation, uranium mining and other Southwestern topics. She’s won numerous local and national awards as a staff reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.