The Men Who Walk Into Fire

My latest book review in The Wall Street Journal, on the first book about the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30, 2013.

Hotshots in Hot Spots

By Mark Yost

The Wall Street Journal

Nearly two years ago—on June 30, 2013—the Yarnell Hill Fire in central Arizona claimed the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, one of an elite cadre of firefighters who put themselves in harm’s way every summer when temperatures soar and the rugged terrain of the western United States grows dry and incendiary.

“On the Burning Edge” will not tell you precisely why the Yarnell fire turned so deadly, though it does piece together a narrative of events, insofar as we can know them. A sudden shift in the wind was surely the biggest culprit, but other variables may have come into play: failures of judgment, communication or fire-fighting strategy.

Edge

Kyle Dickman, a writer for Outside magazine, himself spent five summers fighting wildfires in California. He draws a vivid group portrait of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, only one of whom survived the fire. More broadly, he offers an insider’s view into the kind of men—and, increasingly, women—who battle wildfires every summer.

For decades, Mr. Dickman reminds us, the U.S. Forest Service and the logging industry worked together to keep most fires manageable. “Fires burned at low intensity, with flames not much taller than knee height,” he writes. “These blazes meandered across the landscape, clearing the forest of underbrush every ten to fifteen years.”

The policy of letting low burns do their work was in place until the 1980s, when environmentalists began lobbying for letting underbrush and tracts of forest go uncut, unmanaged and uncleared by small fires. The result was denser forests and forest beds of virtual kindling. Though fires these days escape less frequently, Mr. Dickman says, “they now have exponentially more fuel to burn,” creating “infernos that are nearly impossible to control.”

The whole firefighting experience, Mr. Dickman makes clear, has a martial aspect: facing a deadly enemy, feeling unit pride, being pushed to the edge of physical endurance. His portrait of the Granite Mountain Hotshots begins with their training, as grueling as that of any military unit. On any given day, he says, between classes on clearing forest and taking weather measurements, the crew “might run six miles [and] hike three.” When they are eventually posted out in the field, they will haul around a 45-pound pack, including as much water as they can carry. Distributed among the crew will be hand tools, hoes, shovels, chain saws and drip torches for starting back fires to clear away the main fire’s fuel.

No firefighting job, Mr. Dickman says, requires “so much time on the edge of an active burn.” Hotshot crews, positioned at various points around the country, have higher entry requirements and tougher training because they are dropped into fire zones of particular potency. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, affiliated with the fire department in Prescott, Ariz., were being dispatched throughout the Southwest in the summer of 2013.

And who are the Hotshots themselves? Most are fairly young, though they are molded by older, veteran leaders. And whatever their varied backgrounds or reasons for joining up, they come to feel a strong bond. In “On the Burning Edge,” we meet Grant McKee, 21, who really wanted to be a full-time paramedic but took the Hotshot job for the $20,000 it would pay over the summer. “Put in a few years on a badass crew like Granite Mountain,” his cousin, a firefighter, tells him, “and down the road it’ll help you get a job on an ambulance or engine.” One rookie Hotshot had been rejected twice but was taken onboard with his third try. After long days on his first fire line—in New Mexico a few weeks before the Yarnell fire—he suffered convulsions and had to be evacuated. When his tough-guy partner saw the paramedics take him away, his eyes welled up. “He knew he wasn’t coming back,” Mr. Dickman writes.

The Yarnell assignment came on a Sunday, normally a day off for the crew. The fire, started by lightning the day before, was picking up pace and spreading across a two-mile front, fed by winds swooping up from the Salt River Valley and hitting the edge of a high plateau not far from Prescott. When the Granite Mountain crew arrived, the flames were closing in on the small town of Yarnell.

Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a Hotshot with four seasons under his belt, was the crew’s lookout on that fateful day. He now bears the burden of survivor’s guilt. A slight shift in the fire’s direction had chased him out of his vantage point on a hill near the town. When the wind fully shifted a short while later—turning 180 degrees in a few minutes and picking up speed—he was no longer in a position to see what was going on and warn his crewmates.

Mr. Dickman devotes a good bit of space to Eric Marsh, the 43-year-old crew leader. He was about to turn over his job to someone younger, a former Marine showing strong leadership skill. Marsh was having trouble getting used to the idea of stepping down. Attached to the command staff on the day of the Yarnell fire, he was at first stationed in a makeshift outpost along a highway. But he ended up on the fireground alongside his Granite Mountain crew. Mr. Dickman and investigators believe that he made the decision to take the group into an unburned canyon, where the fire would overtake them.

Just why they were there is a question that hovers over the whole episode. One tenet of wildland training, Mr. Dickman says, is to fight a fire from “the black,” or the ground that has already been burned. But the Granite Mountain crew had left the black and were working on the side of a hill, a dangerous position, Mr. Dickman explains, because it put them in danger of the fire coming down on top of them.

Some investigators have speculated that, when the wind reversed, sending flames speeding toward the firefighters, they made a desperate attempt to get to a nearby horse farm and just didn’t make it. Was this move a miscalculation on Marsh’s part? It is hard to know. In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late. When the winds died down that night, so did the fire, though it wasn’t contained for an additional 10 days.

In far-away Albuquerque, meteorologists had seen the wind shift coming and had tried to relay their concerns. But dispatchers were unsure where the Granite Mountain crewmen were—under the confusion of events, they were not answering their radios. Mr. Dickman quotes a weatherman saying at the time: “This is going to get interesting quick. When [the wind] hits the fire, it’ll turn back on itself and blow up.” Thus the sudden inferno.

The tragedy has caused a lot of soul-searching, of course, but it has also reinforced the importance of the fire zone’s imperatives: constant communication, prompt weather relays and tried-and-true tactics (fighting from the black). What is most clear from Mr. Dickman’s absorbing account is that the Granite Mountain Hotshots died doing what they loved and that risk, even deadly risk, was part of what they signed up for—that they wouldn’t have had it any other way.