On The Road: Yarnell

I’m sitting in Foxworth Galbraith Home Design Center’s parking lot, just across the street from 501 6th St. in Presott, Arizona. As I listen to reverse horns on a truck from a nearby lumber yard, and all the 3 pm traffic filling up my head, I can’t help but feel somewhat intimidated.  Just the noise of this place is deadening.  I wonder if that’s how everyone adjusted around here, just let the noise of life take over.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots warehouse isn’t much bigger than an oversized double-wide trailer and resembles a less-than-flashy mobile home. The painted blue sheet-metal siding flakes and peels. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Granite Mountain Hotshots were a group of welders or mechanics, working out of a dilapidated garage. The gate on the fence surrounding the compound is open, but I’m too afraid to go in.

Online I read that the warehouse remains a “de-facto working museum” and a handful of personal vehicles form a row near the front door. The blinds to the windows are pulled down and I photograph the building from a distance, like a stalker or a CSI agent. Why am I afraid to go through the gate, walk in the front door, and say “Howdy guys, drove down from O-R-E-G-O-N” ?

It’s been three and a half years and I wonder if going in is the right thing to do. Do I help them move forward by not going inside? Or is there no moving on and only shared sorrow? I’ve driven 1250 miles to get here and the same to get home. Station 7, going inside Granite Mountains’ old stomping grounds, had never been part of my plan. But I’m here. I could buy a case of Red Bull and take it in for the guys there, or take in a crew shirt, shake all their hands.  Nobody has left or arrived in 20 minutes. These are working people, with jobs and things to do. What I’d really like is for there to be another fire order or watch out situation. Something a bunch of overpaid stiffs decided was a critical element in the tragedy of Yarnell, something I could tell younger guys about, as a tip, a lesson learned.

This fire was my generations Storm King. This was a big fucking deal. I remember hearing the news and just being sort of light headed and dreamy. I followed the headlines, read all of the books, the reports. I bought a t-shirt through the Prescott Firefighters charity website because they said the proceeds went to the victim’s families. To this day it’s one of my favorite shirts. Part of that is from some of the “heroism” I’ve attached to what we do. Sure, our work to some seems more akin to “glorified landscapers”. But there is no fucking landscaping crew like a well built fire crew. We are a big and wide organization of spirited people; we are black and white, Mexican, Native American, you name it. We work much harder than we are compensated for, and don’t have anything left for ourselves at the end of the day. We drive 2500 miles to pay respects and honor people we never knew or met. Glorified Landscapers? We are Wildland Firefighters. I decide to sleep on it, get a motel room and prepare for the 1200 miles back home.

I hiked from the Granite Mountain Memorial State Park Trailhead the seven miles roundtrip earlier this morning. Every tenth of a mile or so a granite plaque sits embedded to a boulder along the trail, with a photograph and epitaph carved into it. Somehow I missed Marsh’s plaque on the hike there, because I remember clearly thinking “I wonder if they intentionally didn’t include Marsh on a plaque.” I did find him on the way back to my Jeep, though. His quals read “DIVS, ICT4, FIRB, FALB, EMT”.

The trail is beautiful. A ton of effort went into the construction and it was obvious. This trail takes you through mountains of boulders, and imagining the toil of whoever built it, I say “good job”. I passed multiple people along the trail and wondered if they too were – or had ever been – wildland firefighters. I found my hiking ego was still prevalent on the way in, and the badass in me wanted to push people over just to make sure I was there first, or vice versa. I declined those thoughts for a more mature, contemplative approach when I neared the fatality site. There they were: a 20-foot wide swath had had been enclosed by 19 “gabions”, or metal cages filled with rocks. 19 for the 19.  In the background, towards the aspired for ranch, an American flag stood tall. I found the beginning of a t-shirt or patch donation pile on one of the “gabions”, and removed the shirt I’d brought with me to leave here. I put in a chew and sat on a bench and wondered why the hell they decided to make that mad dash, to go on Marsh’s death march. Nobody knows.

Before I came on this trip I was laying in bed and my fiancé asked me a question.  She said, “can you understand how it might not make sense to some people why you’d go on a such a long trip to visit a place where a bunch of people died?” She was referring to friends and family who’d heard about this pilgrimage of sorts.  I couldn’t bring myself to respond, and instead, lay convinced, reaffirmed of my journey.  A lot of people can’t understand why or how we  do what we do.  But what we do, we do because we want to, even if it doesn’t always make sense.

About a year ago I was having dinner with family and friends.  The topic of books we’d been reading or had read recently came up and I mentioned the book I was reading on Yarnell.  Most of the people at the table couldn’t really remember the event.  I finished the meal, regardless of the sickness in my stomach.  That’s why I came here.  In a day and age when people move on to the next thing so quickly, its important for the Wildland community to remember those we’ve lost. Because if we don’t, nobody else will.

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  1. Corianna Lee

    Thanks for your post. My bro is the sup for Blue Ridge, these guys were his brothers in every sense of the word. He has done his best to move on, but was never the same after the event. These are heroes who push on after such tragedy.

    • studentoffire

      I’m glad to hear of your support. I wish him the best both mentally and physically. I can’t imagine playing his role on this tragedy, an adjoining resource all afternoon. Take care and share with people who care.

  2. Michael Starr

    Great writing. Too often people, even family and friends, don’t understand why we do what we do. You can’t sum it up in a few words or even clearly explain it, but those that do understand surely will enjoy this post.

  3. Pam Walrath

    Very well spoken! As a former WLFF I too find myself not sure why my drive is so strong to honor our lost brothers as I found myself in my own solice as I drove to Prescott two months to the day after it happened, not really sure where I was going that day or even how I could help.
    I must say I have been truly blessed getting to know the families since the tragedy.

  4. Linda Lambert

    Thank you for honoring and respecting our men, one of them being my nephew, I know they also did the same for other fallen brothers. The love and support our families have been shown no one can understand until they become a part of it. It goes beyond the normal definition of family. It makes my heart feel full knowing you are their brother. May God bless you and keep you safe.

  5. Deborah Pfingston

    Thank you so much for a beautifully written piece. I love the truth and the strength you express. I lost my son, Andrew Aschraft, he was a lead sawyer for the GMHS crew. I think of this tragedy everyday and it brings my heart a touch of sweetness that there are others who still think about them too. If you are ever back in the area I would love to have coffee or to walk to the Juniper tree the crew saved. Again thank you.

    • studentoffire

      Deborah I will take you up on that offer for coffee next time I drive to the southwest. I was just telling my fiancé about the Boyd’s coffee I had from a hole in the wall market in Congress. Much love for you and yours. Thanks for the offer and just know we are all sharing the burden.

  6. Amanda

    My comment as Eric’s widow is not one of support. You seem to be less a student and more of someone who speculates. We have no idea of so many aspects. We have no idea where my husband was, if he was with them before or if he was at the ranch. You write as if you know the blame lay with Eric. Its very easy for people to arm chair quarterback and thats exactly what you seem to have done. Myself and Erics parents love him deeply and your words bite. Please be careful with what you write.

    • studentoffire

      I’m sorry if I offended you and that was never my intention. I don’t hold any person responsible. In fire we are always asked who is responsible for our safety? And we all know every person is responsible for their own safety. I guess with all of the unknowns it becomes natural to place responsibility on the supervisor. I do not blame your husband. I guess the the main point of going on this trip was one of respect and to see the ground for myself. You are absolutely right about arm chair quarterbacking and I apologize if you interpreted my post to be one of blame. After this happened there was a lot of conjecture and I guess when I mentioned the part about possibly leaving his name off of the plaques it was one of a public sentiment where everyone was head hunting for blame. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for you and your family. Especially because of how the general public has attempted to bring it back to Eric. Please forgive me if I have disrespected you.

      • Amanda

        There are many people who love Eric and miss him so much, people both inside and outside of the fire world. When you loose something that means everything it wounds deeply when people write and say things that seem to disparage the one you love. It is my job as his widow to continue to defend him, love him and represent his character. He was a very smart, very loving man who loved his crew so much. This was a terrible accident. His crew meant the world to him.
        Thank you for your quick response. May I suggest editing your piece to include the explanations above?
        Myself and his parents worked very hard on his plaque and the State of Arizona worked hard to honor Eric and all the Granite Mountain Hotshots. This is an incredibly painful situation and it deserves continued respect and kindness.

    • Chris Desrosiers

      Mrs. Marsh I to felt Woodbridges comments were out of line and off the mark! I filled in with Granite Mtn in 2012. I was a volunteer and wildland team member with Groom Creek Fire Dist. Your husband an everyone on that crew treated me with respect and were men of the highest caliber!! I was by no means a hotshot in my third fire season at age 43!! Eric an the guys called me OMC, Old man Chris! I never felt unsafe even when we were almost overrun on a fire in Nevada! And when asked to do a sketchy assignment Jesse an Eric discussed our escape routes and time frames of retreat with the crew an ultimately let us decline the job! My point is safety was of the utmost concern! I tried out for the crew in 2013 and was told after the interview that I was down to the last 12 but did not get hired. I will always remember my time with the crew fondly as one of the greatest experiences of my life!! And I will honor them through my hard work and dedication on the fireline!! We here on the Prescott national Forest will never forget and will always talk of them like brothers! I have never reached out to any family members before but after reading this article I felt I had to!! 19 will always be on my heart!!

  7. Jeanne

    Thank you for this article, so well spoken. I get it, why you made this journey. I’m just a mom of a wildland firefighter, my son will soon start his tenth season in fire. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on re this tragedy, as well as on the storm king mountain fire, Mann gulch, you name it. I still recall reading about how the Prineville hotshots tragically met their end in south canyon long before I learned that my own two sons would both become hotshots, they were just little guys at that time. I walked that path on south canyon and will do so in yarnell when I get a chance. I’ve been to the WFF headquarters and cried at the monument. Every season I read the sit reports and weather reports often and hope and pray that my son and fellow firefighters stay safe. It’s important work you do. Most people appreciate your efforts, backbreaking, bone tired work. You guys go into danger when the rest of us evacuate. You and your fellow firefighters are my heroes. Stay safe out there.

    • studentoffire

      Thanks so much Jeanne. I’m glad you are so supportive of your sons, pursuing knowledge and trying to understand as best as you can. That means a lot. It means a lot to hear your support of my trip, too. I wish you and your family the best.

      • Jeanne

        Thanks, keep doing what you’re doing please. You’re providing support for your fellow firefighters and education for everyone else. God bless and stay safe

  8. Matt

    It is unquestionably a tragedy that 19 men in the prime of their lives were cut down by fire. It is completely understandable that the survivors of those men do everything they can to honor their memories. It is unforgivable that we allow sentiment and tradition prevent us from learning anything from the human factors surrounding Yarnell because we continue to be blinkered and sentimental in our eagerness to “not speak ill” of the dead. It is nothing short of astonishing that the official conclusion was that everybody involved in the Yarnell Hill Fire did everything right – despite the incineration of the 19 hotshots by flames so hellish that granite boulders fractured. Covering up facts because they make us uncomfortable dishonors the dead, and ensures the same mistakes will be made in the future.

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