Heroes: Reflections on the Granite Mountain Hotshots

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.


10 thoughts on “Heroes: Reflections on the Granite Mountain Hotshots

  1. Hi Walt,

    Had a bad feeling about this fire season…Thanks for putting this event into a larger perspective. It’s very upsetting to be reminded of my favorite, once hometown through the lens of this tragedy. Are any of these individuals related to Prescott College somehow?

    Wanted to get my email to you to reconnect.

    • Hi, Matt. I am sure that your thoughts were meant not just for your former home town of Prescott but also Yarnell, the focus of your senior project. You helped those people fight off the threat of the Canadian gold mining company, an incredible victory. Now the town is hit by what appears to be Mother Nature, but the fire was really set up by human land management practices. I am so glad you are working back east to improve land management and to enlighten people who do not understand how to live with nature. Your efforts are highly important. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Walt. You are right about “heros” being all around us. We need only to pay attention. Your last paragraph really hits home. It is a shame that having a difference of opinion–be it religion, politics, social issues–creates enemies. It saddens me.

    • Indeed. We all should be pulling together, and yet divisions seem to be increasing. Our congressional representative “hosted” a memorial meeting, and then in his newsletter, he continued to demonize our national leaders. He certainly did not get the take-home message from the Yarnell Fire that I hoped for (though I don’t expect that he will read my essay). He has a very limited understanding of heroism. But if we by example show tolerance, respect, and caring for all, we should make inroads and perhaps shift attitudes in the right direction.

  3. Walt,

    Did the fire burn Yarnell Hill, the place Bema Gold wanted to turn into a 400 ft deep pit? I always thought we had only won the battle, not the war, and that final protection remained waiting for another time – perhaps another cause or chain of events that allign in support of its final protection. I think I recall that permanent protection would take a Presidential decree or formal withdrawal by the Secretary of Interior.

    If that hasn’t yet happened, now would sure seem like a good time, and perhaps a meaningful way to honor these brave young people who wouldn’t let Yarnell stand alone. It would be appropriate…nothing evokes contemplation of the sacred, or quiet time in the heart for reflection, than the view from a scenic mountaintop nestled in the Southern Rockies.

    • Matt, you pose a very interesting suggestion. I do not believe that hill burned, and it remains vulnerable to mining under archaic mining laws. You and the citizens of Yarnell did indeed win the first battle, and maybe it is the right occasion to seek some more permanent protection for this town and its physical context. To honor the hotshots this way would be an appropriate memorial.

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