No doubt many of you have heard the sad news of the multiple wildland firefighter fatalities (19 out of 20 perished) that occurred on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on Sunday. My immediate reaction was, “Damn, another South Canyon tragedy.” If you are not familiar with the South Canyon Fire on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain that occurred almost 19 years ago (7/6/1994), I very highly recommend John N. Maclean’s riveting book, “Fire on the Moutain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire“. It is more humanly authoritative than the official government investigative report, though Maclean drew some inspiration from it.
Reading all the various news reports about Yarnell, it seems to me that the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (a human factor). The fuels there were so dry and the 180 degree wind shift so sudden, that it’s a wonder any of them had time to deploy their fire shelters in the face of the blowup (reports say some of the bodies were not found in their shelters). In the end though, this tragedy was largely nature driven (flashy grassy fuels, and, when fuel moisture is in the single digits, the explosiveness of the chaparral fuels), and partly driven by the pounded-in-our-heads notion that saving homes are worth fatal danger to the lives of wildland firefighters. That has to change. No house, or natural resource, or scenic view is worth dying over. Those things can be rebuilt, but those 19 lives that were needlessly-lost will never be.
People need to accept the fact that they and their material items are now part of the ecosystem in which they place them. It is unfortunate that they lose their homes to something as primeval as fire, but fire is the driving and shaping force of all natural things in the West. Forests and other plant communities burn to ashes, that’s natural, and they come back on their own. We can’t make fire go away, and nor should we, as we are seeing the negative effects of the legacy of the Smokey Bear generation. However, that is not the only cause of erratic fire behavior by any means, but it is a large part of the problems we have in all fire-dependent plant communities in North America – the West especially.
For those wondering why the fire shelters did not save the crew members, it is simply due to the fact that at 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the glue that holds the layers together begins to delaminate, and high winds can whip the layers apart, rendering them useless. They are designed to help you survive fast moving burnovers, not to survive direct, slow moving flames, or high-intensity wind-driven blowups, the latter of which is one of the common denominators in the firefighter fatalities of South Canyon, Yarnell Hill, and partly the Esperanza Fire, to name a few.
Those who wish to do so, can donate to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. Donations are used to financially assist the families of those who are killed in the line of duty. The Foundation was formed in the aftermath of the South Canyon Fire.
My condolences to the wildland fire community, the families of the Granite Mountain IHC 19, and Brendan McDonough.