A tragic consensus: Arizona Hot Shots died for houses

They say that newspapers are dead or dying, but the reporting on the death of nineteen brave wildland firefighters in Arizona has been absolutely top-notch. The LA Times has responded by sending a team of its best people, including Julie Cart from Idaho:

BOISE, Idaho — Early morning is a frenetic time at a wildfire command
post. Biologists, meteorologists, foresters and firefighters hustle
into tents and grab laptops to review overnight reports, prepping for
the day's assault. Fire behavior analysts run computer models that spit
out information crucial to putting out the blaze: how many acres a fire
will probably burn, in which direction and with what intensity.

In recent years, the models have been rendered practically
obsolete, unable to project how erratic Western fires have become,
making tactical decisions more difficult for fire bosses and the fire
lines less safe for crews in the field.

The analytical work performed by fire scientists here at the National
Interagency Fire Center
also confirms what seems anecdotally evident:
Wildfires are getting bigger — the average fire is now five times as
large as it was in the 1980s — and these enormous conflagrations have a
breathtaking facility to dance and grow. Unforeseen winds are swerving
and turning on fire crews, and it's no longer unusual for fires to
double in size in a day.

The unpredictable has now become the expected.

Molly Henneske-Fiske, from Texas, and Chris Gofford, from Orange County, with two others put together a first-rate tick-tock (recounting in time):

Granite Mountain was an experienced crew, led by a supervisor old
enough to be Woyjeck's father — he called the crew his kids — and who
was known to turn down missions he didn't think were safe. The hotshots
were supremely fit and spoke with a swagger about their ability to
absorb punishment. On workouts they'd sometimes run a mile, then turn
around and do 300 sit-ups and 100 pull-ups.

And this wasn't a huge fire. It was what they call a Type III, not
even serious enough to call in one of the meteorologists who deploy on
the big blazes that can turn deadly with a turn of the weather.

Later that day, though, the winds would shift suddenly. The sky would
darken, the cool-headed supervisor would radio for help and, despite a
desperate attempt to use a helicopter to douse the suddenly advancing
flames , the Yarnell Hill fire would become one of the deadliest blazes
in the history of fighting wildfires.

The LA Times also had perhaps the most insightful news piece on the tragedy, looking at why firefighters now longer trust investigators, or the press for that matter, in Evan Halper's great piece on the aftermath of a fire known as Thirtymile, which killed fourteen wildland firefighters in Washington. 

More than a decade ago, a similar blaze whipped through a canyon 30
miles north of Winthrop, Wash. Four firefighters died in circumstances
eerily similar to those at Yarnell, killed in their emergency shelters
as a fast-moving fire burned over them.

By the time investigators had finished their work, a unit commander
was facing federal criminal charges and supervisors in firehouses across
the country found themselves on the hunt for liability insurance. The
next time federal investigators began such an inquiry, firefighters
started lawyering up.

Nobody seems happy with the
outcome of the exhaustive, years-long investigation into that blaze,
known as the Thirtymile fire. Firefighters call the investigation a
witch hunt that unfairly sought to hold humans accountable for acts of
nature, and they have resisted some new rules added after tragedies.
Politicians and regulators who demanded firefighters change their ways
and take greater precautions have been frustrated by what they see as
excessive risk-taking and stubbornness.

The New York Times is just getting started on the story, but already published a characteristically tough essay on the subject by Timothy Egan, who wrote a great book on wildland fires, called The Big Burn. Egan pointed the finger at homeowners such as myself, living in the wildland-urban interface:

…every homeowner in the arid lands owes these fallen men an answer. More than ever, wild land firefighters die for people’s summer homes and year-round retreats. They die protecting property, kitchen views, dreams cast in stucco and timber.

And so it was in Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday: the Hotshots were sent to the advance guard of a tricky fire in order to protect a former gold-mining community that had become a haven for retirees. After an evacuation order, most of the homes were empty. They were just fuel at that point.

Sunday’s fatal toll from the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona was the greatest loss of firefighter lives in the United States since Sept. 11. But those who died in New York that terrible day were not rushing into a building in order to protect property — they were trying to save lives.

And an expert writing in the Washington Post today sums up simply:  

No one should ever die to save a house.

The 19 firefighters
killed in Arizona this past week should be honored as the fallen heroes
they are. Members of an elite unit, they were trained to hike for miles
across remote, difficult terrain with 40 pounds of gear and clear
vegetation to keep fires from spreading. The Granite Mountain Hotshots
were caught by an advancing wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., the town they
were trying to save, when they were overrun by flames.

They should
never have been put in that position. Since Yarnell had already been
evacuated, these men were lost trying to save not lives but houses.
Homeowners who live in wildfire-prone areas shouldn’t expect their
highly flammable property to be rescued during extreme fires.

Sounds like a concensus we can stand behind — even (I hope) homeowners. 


Related articles

11:45 p.m. update: 19 Prescott firefighters die after deploying shelters
Arizona wildfire kills 19 firefighters
Investigators to examine why Ariz. blaze killed 19
PHOTOJOURNALISM: 19 Firefighters Killed And 200 Homes Destroyed In Arizona Wildfire

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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