Yarnell Hill and Granite Mountain Hotshots: Books and Thoughts

lost brothers

With the recent Anniversary of Yarnell Hill on June 30th, I felt compelled to revisit the event in some form.

In the last four months, I’ve read three books dedicated to telling the story of Yarnell Hill, each with their own vision of how 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain’s met their deaths by burning. But before I talk about the books and what I learned, I wanted to point something out. Being a temporary wildland firefighter among the federal ranks, aspiring towards the elusive permanent status with benefits, I reluctantly retire to another hat for the remaining 1041 hours of the fiscal year. But do I completely? For me, when a book concerning an event like Yarnell comes out, I can’t help but feel that I am once again called upon to become a firefighter. Off the clock, of course. And this call to action – to Barnes and Noble, or Bloomsbury Books, from wherever the book beckons  – feels right, and the money well spent. Only this time it wasn’t one or two books on Yarnell Hill, but three: three books within three months of one another. Instead of feeling like a laid-off firefighter, I sort of felt like a target of literary marketing, just another eager listener armchair quarterbacking an event I wasn’t present at. However, suspending my disbelief regarding the behind-the-scenes motives, I allowed my wallet to open wide enough to acquire these books.

My first read was On The Burning Edge by Kyle Dickham, and it had a couple things going for it: the title, and release date. Being first out of the gates for publication, it attracted me due to the building hunger for solace regarding the tragedy. Three years ago, I was signed up for work on a contract engine. I’d sent out envelopes full of resumes, IQCS info, Saw Cert, etc., to every hotshot crew in the west, hoping that with my one season with the Forest Service supplemented by my non-standard approach towards introductions, I might get hired on. To no avail. Instead, I signed up for work with a Type Six Pumper and painting apartments part time, obsessively checking the news for clues as to where my first roll of the season might be. That’s when I found a Google news story telling me about what happened the day before. It was bright, hot, around noon, and I was confused. What the hell?! That confusion led me to youtube videos, books, the official report, following the aftermath as best I could.

When On The Burning Edge was released, I bought it immediately and read it in one sitting. Again I was hungry. As a wild land firefighter, you cannot watch the youtube video of Granite Mountain’s last radio transmissions without having your sense of solidarity being thrown into an emotional blender. Being influenced by any available sources of information, I wanted more. For me, the book failed to solidify an answer to that elusive question everybody was asking: “Why did Granite Mountain leave a good safety zone?”.  This failure gets right to the heart of how the majority of us approach this event, which holds some pitfalls. It implies that until we find the answer to that question, we don’t have enough information to learn anything of value. If that were the standard, My Lost Brothers by Brandon McDonough failed too. But it didn’t.

By the time I finished Brandon’s book, I realized that my standard – a lot of peoples’ standard – was wrong. Honoring those who have fallen by learning as much as we can to prevent similar tragic events in the future doesn’t necessarily entail having information that doesn’t exist. We want to revisit the Yarnell Hill tragedy and see a specific decision or turning point, where we can neatly say “there, that’s where they screwed up; that’s why they were killed”, or, “that’s why they did what they did”. Reading Brandon’s book was refreshing. Instead of spending 200 pages trying to clear the air on why they left their safety zone, I was drawn into Brandon’s world for it’s similarities to my own. I found someone who I could have had on my truck, on my squad – somebody I could talk to and count on to play some good tunes. I found somebody in My Lost Brothers who was real and alive; somebody who struggled with partying too much, who found firefighting, and dove in head first. The sole survivor of Granite Mountain Hotshots was carrying a story most wildland firefighters could understand. This wasn’t another “twirling, spitting wall of flame” Maclean fire book.

If it were a lack of details that led me to read these books, it was The Fire Line: The Story of The Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of The Deadliest Days in American Firefighting which offered answers to the most unknowns. Due to her newspaper reporting skills, no doubt, she had obviously mined for personal details from family and friends to make the sequence of events tangible. Girlfriends were given names, nuances, and habits, and personalities of those who died were colored in to paint a richer view of the people we look at when we see the crew photos for Granite Mountain Hotshots 2013.

Where any of these books fell short individually, they were complimented nicely by the other two. This was such a huge event in the firefighting community, but sadly, easily forgotten by the general public. At a dinner recently with extended family, I was discussing one of these books, and most of the people at the table could not recall the event of Yarnell Hill. Maybe we don’t have an updated LCES, a new set of firefighting orders or watch out situations because of Yarnell Hill. But Yarnel Hill happened. Maybe that’s the most important thing to remember: sometimes the lesson we want to learn isn’t necessarily the lesson being afforded us. I find this to be true, time and time again, in my perpetual pursuits of knowledge and the never-ending study of Fire.

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