As the nation and especially the citizens of Prescott mourn the loss of 19 brave firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, we learn that this is the greatest loss of first responders since the tragedy of 9/11, when firefighters and rescue personnel, at great risk to themselves, rushed into the mayhem of the burning towers in efforts to save fellow human beings. To lose such brave men and women is a personal loss for most of us, even if we were nowhere near the scene of catastrophe. They would have done it for us, if we had been there.
For us—strangers. There was no calculation of coefficient of relatedness involved. Haldane once said “I would gladly give my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” That is the mathematics of kin selection—two brothers would, on average, be equivalent to you in gene composition, so taking a risk to, in effect, protect one’s own genes, seems like a rational, even selfish decision. Of course, the way natural selection works, no logic needs to be involved; any tendency to behave in a certain way that leaves more copies of your genes should be selected for, and reasoning is immaterial.
Clearly, no thought to relatedness occurred here. If these young men had thought about genes, they would have chosen a different career path—or had no families. The wives, girlfriends, and children of these firefighters suffered incalculable losses. Their men were heroes, but what is a hero compared to a loving partner or parent who would never again come home, never give another loving embrace or knowing smile to a family member?
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are being hailed as heroes, but in life, they explicitly rejected that title. They would say that they were doing their jobs, which they loved. They knew there were risks. A leader of the crew said this past year, “We know that every day we put our lives on the line.” But this was acceptable risk; the odds were long in their favor. The fact that the last disaster in which six firefighters lost their lives in the Dude Fire in Arizona was 23 years ago shows that dying in the line of duty is a rare event. Each hotshot crew member in the country probably stands a better chance of perishing in a car accident than in a fire.
Many, including me, have called them “the best of the best.” And they were. This was an elite crew, physically superior to most of us, highly trained, and smart. They knew their abilities, they functioned as a finely tuned team, and they respected the power of fire. They not only kept fit; they prepared for contingencies. They studied weather patterns and fire behavior. They recognized the paramount importance of self-preservation even as they did what they could to help prevent losses to others.
I am a Vietnam veteran, and I understand service to country. I understand that risk goes along with the role of such service. These men were not fatalists. They had fought many fires and anticipated fighting many more. They tempered natural fear with confidence in their abilities and training. Time and again, that confidence was rewarded. One time, they got unlucky.
They claimed while alive that they were not heroes, but their deaths made them so. It is completely understandable that we accord them that honor. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives (though not intentionally) for the sake of people they didn’t even know.
But I believe that they and the other hotshot teams around the country were heroes in life, not just in death. So are the brave pilots who are dropping water and slurry from the air to slow or stop the spread of the flames. Talk about dangerous jobs! Clearly these are heroes, but so are the ambulance drivers, the EMT’s and doctors and nurses, the Red Cross volunteers who sacrifice to aid displaced residents of fire-stricken areas, the people who rush to save animals threatened by the fires.
You do not have to die to be a hero. Heroes are all around us—people willing to stand up for what they believe despite discrimination, scientists dedicated to finding a cure to a dreaded disease or how to effectively manage our forests, teachers willing to live modestly and take a certain amount of abuse to help students find ways to live productively, farmers committed to long hours and uncertain markets simply because they believe that producing good food is a worthy cause. To find a hero, we simply have to look, to be aware.
We live in a society that often is highly polarized politically and socially. It is all too commonplace to criticize, ostracize, demonize “others.” The Granite Mountain Hotshots should remind us that we are all brothers and sisters; the well-being of others sharing this amazing planet should concern all of us. If we put aside our prejudices, open our hearts and minds, we can all be heroes. And that is what I pray we learn from the Yarnell Hill Fire.