Writers on the Range

Reflections on the fire that killed 19 firefighters a year ago

By Frank Carroll
Writers on the Range

The terms fire control and fire management are really just euphemisms for firefighting. Think tornado control or the impossibility of tornado management. We can prepare for fires, we can study them and even learn how to dance with them, but controlling fires is always a gamble. And sometimes we lose.

Last year, on June 30, we lost big when 19 members of an elite hotshot crew died fighting the Yarnell Fire, which burned 127 homes near Prescott, Arizona. Thirteen of the dead Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters were seasonal workers, meaning they were not covered by the same insurance or eligible for the same benefits given to the families of the six permanent employees who died.

This year, the Arizona Legislature tabled a bill that would have granted benefits to all the dead firefighters. Lawsuits against federal agencies must be settled before the legislators will act — a process that will take years.

In the aftermath of the fire, questions still remain about what exactly happened and when, and about what the firefighters experienced on the ground. One fact, however, stands out: The explosive fire burned over 13 square miles that ran through several small communities, yet no civilians died. They survived because lots of people took protective actions based on training, experience and good judgment.

Protecting the ‘Red Zone’

Nonetheless, the angry buzz of lawyers tends to overwhelm the dirges still echoing in the brush-covered valleys of central Arizona’s Mogollon Rim country. Death and destruction are not news in that place. Six firefighters died on the Dude Fire in 1990; they were also trying to protect the homes of people who chose to build in a “Red Zone,” close to or enclosed by fire-prone trees.

The firefighting strategy and tactics used in both the Dude and Yarnell fires were dominated by the need to protect the homes built in this zone, the risk equivalent of building in a floodplain. But as long as people are permitted to build in inappropriate places, there will be burning homes and dead firefighters.

Today, a year later, it feels strange, almost ghoulish, to watch the coverage of the Yarnell Fire and its aftermath. Somehow, everyone seems surprised that firefighters died defending indefensible homes in tough firefighting terrain.

But homes burning down there should not have been surprising, unexpected or unpredictable.

The people who died were trained to fight fire in whatever conditions they faced. They knew the dangers.

An old friend, Dude Fire boss Ed Hollenshead, tells a story about a soldier in a landing craft going ashore on Omaha Beach during World War II. The lieutenant in charge said that two out of three of the men on the boat would be dead or wounded before the day ended. The soldier looked left, then right, then thought how sorry he was for those two poor bastards on either side of him. That’s how hotshots go into harm’s way. That’s how hotshots and first responders and soldiers have gone into harm’s way since the beginning of time.

Making choices

But when we make choices to live in a civil society and allow people the freedom to choose to live as they will, we also make choices for first responders. They’re the ones who put their lives at risk for the choices we’ve made, and that includes where we decided to build houses.

As long as we allow ourselves to build in the Red Zone, and as long as firefighters and first responders continue to look at the people to the left and right of them and think, “Those poor bastards,” that’s how long people will sacrifice their lives for others.

In our sorrow at the tragic but predictable outcome of what happened at Yarnell a year ago, we must not allow ourselves to criminalize the actions of fire commanders and firefighters. The people responsible for fighting that fire took action in the heat of the moment. They did what seemed right at the time, and what they decided will not change with lawsuits or promises to try harder next time. I do not believe fire bosses belong in court.

Meanwhile, voters refuse to vote for more money to fund more firefighters, even though they still expect fires to be fought. Politicians will not tell voters what they can and can’t do on their own land. It is a free country, right? And fire, a force that drives the engines of the universe, will continue to burn on planet Earth. Homes will burn. People will die. And hotshots will quickly go to fight wildfires because that’s what hotshots do. The least we can do is thank them for their sacrifice and for their service.

Frank Carroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated opinion column service of High Country News. He owns the Professional Forest Management firm in Custer, South Dakota, and worked for many years as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.