Bond of Brothers
FERNANDA SANTOS HONORS FALLEN YARNELL FIREFIGHTERS
Author Fernanda Santos honors the fallen Yarnell firefighters with a new book, The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting
Don’t look for definitive answers in Fernanda Santos’ book The Fire Line. That’s not why the New York Times’ Phoenix bureau chief wrote about the devastating loss of 19 highly trained firefighters in Yarnell, Arizona, on June 30, 2013. She wasn’t looking for someone to blame but rather to understand more about these men and the thousands of other wild-land firefighters who routinely risk their lives to protect people and property and places with cultural or historic value. Santos covered the story for her newspaper, and then she read the official report that the multi-agency Serious Accident Investigation Team released three months later. The book, her first, shares highlights from that probe, including a detailed timeline of events.
The formal record begins after 5 p.m. on June 28, when several residents and motorists reported a fire — one of many ignited by lightning strikes that evening — on a rocky ridge west of the tiny community of Yarnell, which lies 34 miles southwest of Prescott. The next day, air tankers dropped retardant on the blaze, and hand crews from the Arizona State Prison Complex at Lewis and the Bureau of Land Management attempted to block it with water and a hand-dug firebreak.
As the growing fire threatened neighboring communities, local officials called for a team with more resources — a Type 2 Incident Management Team. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, a top-level crew of wildfire specialists dispatched to the area from the Prescott Fire Department, arrived at the command post on the morning of June 30; the bodies of 19 hotshot crew members were discovered in a tight cluster of fire shelters early that evening.
Santos declines to second-guess the decisions made by incident managers and the victims themselves, unlike many who wrote about the events. The most lingering and baffling questions are unanswerable, including why an experienced group of professional wild-land firefighters abandoned a safe perch to hike nearly two miles through an unburned area — behind hills that blocked their view of the fire — to another safety zone. They perished when one head of the fire turned toward them, blocking their path. Hotshot Brendan McDonough, who served as a
lookout on a distant ridge, was the lone survivor. “No one had erred on purpose,” Santos writes. “No one had been malicious. It is quite possible that one person’s bad call had gone unnoticed or unacknowledged by the next person who made a bad call, and then by the next.”
Santos, a native of Brazil, calls herself a city girl, but she empathizes with people who live in rural areas that abut wilderness — places where natural fuels haven’t been reduced by smaller fires for decades and where wildfires can burn with alarming intensity. She comes to Collected Works Bookstore on Thursday, June 16, to discuss The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting (Flatiron Books) and its protagonists. She spoke in advance with Pasatiempo about why she decided to honor the fallen hotshots with a book that sheds more light on their lives than their deaths.
Pasatiempo: This is not the only book that’s been written about the Yarnell Fire. What do you think it contributes to the understanding of this disaster?
Fernanda Santos: The reason I wanted to write this book wasn’t so much to make sense of the incident. It was never my intention to reinvestigate this fire and uncover some malfeasance or some bad decision that somebody made. My curiosity was about the men: Who were they? And most importantly, what kind of job is this? And what kind of people are those who, when faced with … a wall of flames, stay together? These 19 guys decided, without having to take a vote, that they had to stay together if they had any chance of making it out alive.
Pasa: The reader learns a lot about wild-land firefighters and what they’re up against.
Santos: I think that most people don’t have any idea what wild-land firefighting is about and who fights these fires. They’re kids: your son, your neighbor, the guy you graduated from high school with. And the type of brotherhood that they shared — it’s a job that cannot be done by one person alone. I thought that the most important story here is the story of these guys and the job they did and the love they had for the job, for their families, and for one another. I didn’t feel that anybody else could write that book, because I don’t think that anybody was looking at that question at the time I decided to write the book.
Pasa: You don’t assign blame and instead show how a series of little mistakes — little departures from the fire-line rules — can add up to catastrophe.
Santos: I didn’t blame anybody because there isn’t really someone to blame. We can look back now and see all the mistakes and missteps and misjudgments by everyone, including the crew, but if I were in their shoes in that moment, would I have done it differently? We function in this very black-and-white world — guilty, not guilty; good, bad — and this job has a lot of shades of gray. That’s where they dwell, in the in-betweens, and I hope people will be satisfied that that’s not the focus of this book.
Pasa: You’ve gone through some of the training and taken some of the classes that firefighters take. Did that increase your appreciation for the job and the complexities of fighting wildfires?
Santos: It did. In journalism, it’s very helpful when you can immerse yourself in the world of the people you’re writing about while still having some distance — to be able to see things that they might not be seeing. My main goal with the training was to understand how the bond among members of the same crew is formed. I learned the lingo, which is crucial. If you don’t get hung up on the language, you’re able to advance the conversation, and you’re able to ask better questions, and you’re able to see aspects of the story that you wouldn’t have been able to see if you did not have that experience. I think in some ways, not being of the fire world, everything was so new and different that everything stood out to me. I never judged decisions about things people were doing or not doing based on my experience, because I didn’t have any experience. It was a great way to not allow my biases to color my reporting, because I had no biases. I had no knowledge.
Sandy Nelson has spent seven summers as a seasonal wildfire public information officer.
Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in front of the alligator juniper tree they saved during the Doce Fire in Prescott, Arizona: front row, Christopher MacKenzie, Andrew Ashcraft, Brendan McDonough, Garret Zuppiger, Joe Thurston, Sean Misner, Travis Turbyfill, Billy Warneke, Scott Norris, and Travis Carter (hanging from branch); back row, Jesse Steed, Robert Caldwell, Dustin DeFord, Grant McKee, Kevin Woyjeck, Anthony Rose, Wade Parker (hanging from tree, left), and Clayton Whitted (in tree, right); photo © Christopher MacKenzie