Game of Fire

Issue 10 and Volume 11.

“The fire was threatening our homes, our families. It was time to fight.”-Brendan McDonough

On September 11, 2001, the U.S. fire service lost 343 men-more in one incident than the U.S. military had lost in a single battle since Khe Sanh in Vietnam. Then, on June 30, 2013, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed by the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. The only greater loss for the U.S. military in a single day in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred when 31 special operatives were shot down by the Taliban on their way to rescue Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell. We know that story well. Books have been written about it, movies made. But we don’t know much about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It’s time their story was told.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a renaissance in war literature. All kinds have emerged: memoir, biography, poetry, and fiction that have gone on to win elite literary prizes and hit the best seller lists. These stories are essential if we are to understand our society’s legacy of choice and trauma, the sacrifices people have made for their country, and the experiences others have lived on our behalf.

Yet in the fire service, too little has been written by firefighters about the losses incurred in this new century. As a result, the public doesn’t fully understand the sacrifices we have made or the casualties we incur. Civilians aren’t entirely clear on the day-to-day realities of our service. Firefighters are nameless “heroes,” a faceless number-19 or 343-but this doesn’t help the public understand our experience. If they understood, they might be more inclined to support us in ways we desperately need if we are to continue leaving our homes and fighting on their behalf.

Missing Voices

In the United States, firefighters and emergency medical services respond to civilian massacres like a sort of domestic quick reaction force, only instead of weapons they’re armed with tourniquets and mass casualty incident kits. Body armor is issued. First responders are shot at, either stepping off trucks or radioing for help from inside their ambulances. Situational awareness is the great mantra. Phrases like “scene safety and “know your exits” have never before seemed so critical.

Meanwhile, a wave of flame, enormous and unrelenting, is sweeping through the West, ripping through homes, ravaging the economy, and year after year felling our strongest people. Yet many of us aren’t taking the threat seriously because it happens largely beyond the eye of the camera and we have so many other things to worry about.

“When you’re a hotshot, you’re an afterthought, invisible to everyone except your family and your brothers.” And yet for firefighters, it sometimes feels like we’re fighting a war right here in our own country. It’s an ambiguous war with many faces: fire, active shooters, and kamikaze airliners. The myriad manifestations, although different, have one thing in common: They’re designed to destroy, and firefighters are expected to adapt and respond to each one of them wherever and whenever they appear.

This is why we need books like Smokejumper by Jason Ramos and My Lost Brothers by Brendan McDonough. The public needs to understand what it takes to stop a wildland fire before it carves a gaping wound through homes and lives. We need to know what’s happening out there beyond the cameras, and the only way we’ll know is if those people who are fighting come back and tell us about it.

I know it sounds dramatic, but 19 Hotshots felled by a firestorm while a lone survivor lives to tell about it is dramatic. Fortunately for us, then 21-year-old Brendan McDonough (aka Donut), on lookout the day his brothers died, lived to tell the story.

Hotshots and Megafire

On June 28, 2013, lightning started multiple fires in the dry brush and rugged terrain west of Yarnell, Arizona. Multiple agencies responded. Among them was a crew of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots from the nearby Prescott Fire Department.

Hotshots are wildland firefighters who basically battle fires by hand, without water or retardant. They starve an approaching fire of fuel by carving a fire line out of the landscape, cutting miles of firebreaks that ribbon across the mountainsides using only brute labor and basic tools. With chainsaws, axes, and pulaskis, they fell trees, clear brush, and dig out roots until only mineral earth remains. At times they fight fire with fire, burning out sections of fuel in an effort to starve and kill the fire.

Hotshots are extremely fit, often hiking for miles to get into position before the real work even begins. On a good day, a helicopter can drop them off at a helispot closer to where they’re needed, but on a bad day the chopper can’t return, forcing the hotshots to hike their equipment, food, and water back out on foot.

Hotshots can shape a fire, corral a fire, and kill a fire. And we need them now more than ever. The climate is changing. Peak fire season has grown from five months to seven. Higher temperatures, earlier snowpack melt, and drier forests are creating bigger, hotter, and more frequent fires. Monster fires. Fires hot enough to melt titanium. Uranium. Words like “megadrought” and “megafire” are now in use. The number of large fires has almost doubled in the past 30 years, and since the 1970s fires over 10,000 acres have increased seven fold.

Twenty air tanker pilots died from 2001 through 2013. Four hundred wildland firefighters have been killed since 1994. Wildland firefighting is more dangerous than it has ever been, and as fires get stronger and hotter, it’s only going to get worse.

“Aside from the Nomex® shirts and the shelters, there’s really nothing else to protect a hotshot. No emergency beacons. No safe spaces. No cavalry coming to save the day. Only the hotshot’s own intelligence and experience. And his brothers. When we go out to the fire line, we’re deeply vulnerable to the flames. Every hotshot knows that.”

When things go bad, often the only way a hotshot crew can escape the fire is on foot. On June 30, 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire burgeoned into a firestorm and literally took a terrifying turn. By the end of the day, Donut was the only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots left alive.

My Lost Brothers

If you read My Lost Brothers hoping, as we were, to find out why we lost 19 of our very best, you will be a bit disappointed. McDonough doesn’t tell us why they died, because he doesn’t know. No one does. No one knows why 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots left one safety zone for another, stepped out of the black into the green, and died in a box canyon. McDonough has his theory, and we have ours. But this isn’t a story about why they died. This is a story about Brendan McDonough and how an obnoxious teenage criminal was saved by the brotherhood and, more specifically, by Granite Mountain Hotshots Supervisor Eric Marsh, who took a big chance on a lost soul from Oceanside, California, and turned him into a firefighter. It’s also about the people who risk everything to protect our way of life in the West.

Brendan McDonough’s youth and inexperience show through in the book. As we read, we couldn’t help wonder what it would be like to be so young, so new to the fire service, and to experience such a profound tragedy. To lose the men who saved you from yourself.

The prologue grabs you by the lungs. It hurls you into a fire Donut barely escaped only 12 days before the Yarnell Hill Fire almost killed him. It makes your bones ache. This glimpse of how it feels to be overrun by fire, the adrenaline and terror of it, will haunt you as you continue reading, reminding you just what’s at stake. Then Donut sucks us in again with his account of that fatal day on June 30 when a firestorm raged and began to fly, “so impatient to consume what was ahead of it that it had lifted from the ground and inhabited the desert air.”

McDonough describes how the fire mushroomed and pivoted, then bore down on his experienced and devoted leader as he led his men into a narrow green box canyon. Eric Marsh, always so cool and calm and smart, knew in the final moments that he’d screwed up. They were trapped. When he radioed for help, everyone listening could hear it in his voice, most of all Donut, back in the safe zone, who was monitoring their transmissions in sick disbelief. Last he’d known, his 19 brothers had been in the black, safe, with their eyes on the fire.

“I started talking to God in my mind. I asked him to take me and let my friends survive. I would have gladly lain down in the flames at that moment if it meant my brothers could live.”

The One Who Returns

My Lost Brothers is also a call for help. Wildland firefighters are stretched beyond the limits of safety. They are overworked and underpaid. McDonough writes, “Twenty thousand firefighters are in the field in the West-and it’s not enough. The government is giving National Guard troops emergency wildfire training so they can help out crews that are stretched beyond their limits. There’s a crew of twenty firefighters working a thirty-two hour shift on a fire line somewhere in California. They are bone tired. They haven’t seen their families in weeks. They are working under supervisors who are exhausted and overworked. When that crew kills the fire they are on, there are two or three more waiting for them. It’s inevitable that mistakes will be made.”

So McDonough calls for the formation of a wildland firefighters union, as well as issuing satellite emergency notification devices to every wildland firefighter so that they can send out an emergency distress signal even when radios are clogged with traffic or simply don’t work because of terrain. These safety measures seem a small price to pay if it means saving another crew.

We all wish nothing but the best for Brendan Donut McDonough and hope he can stay the course despite everything he has been through. The lone survivor bears the greatest burdens: pain and memory. He returns to civilization and becomes the keeper of his brothers’ stories. This is a necessary and important job, for stories have power, and we need to hear them, to learn from them, to remember. But it’s also the hardest job, for death is fast, and living can seem so long.

Because of books like My Lost Brothers we have names and faces to go with the Yarnell Hill Fire. The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were people-strong, brave, special people-and as long as fires are fought, we must never forget.