Bond of Broth­ers


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Sandy Nel­son

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

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