Chapter 15 - Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)

Chapter 15

THE TOWN OF YARNELL, Arizona, population 650, sits at almost five thousand feet in the desert hills an hour and a half northwest of Phoenix. On June 28, 2013, a lightning bolt sparked a fire on a steep boulder field west of town.

The small blaze wasn’t fought all-out at first, a decision that would come back to haunt fire managers. Despite the efforts of thirteen firefighters backed by small air tankers, the flames spread through the dense Arizona chaparral of manzanita, juniper, and scrub oak. Days of 100-plus temperatures had left the fuels as dry as a dead dingo’s donger, as they say in Australia.

About five hundred acres were burning when the twenty-person Granite Mountain Hotshot crew arrived on the morning of June 30. Granite Mountain was one of the few hotshot crews in the country attached to a city fire department (Prescott, Arizona).

They were a mix of rookies and veterans, full-timer and seasonal, married and unmarried, ranging from twenty-one to forty-three years old (the superintendent). A few years earlier they had visited the South Canyon Fire memorial and hiked the steep trails beneath Hell’s Gate Ridge.

After a briefing on weather, safety, and their overall mission—to keep fire out of Yarnell, its suburbs of Glen Ilah and scattered houses and ranches of Peeples Valley—the hotshots established an anchor point on the mountains near where the fire started, sent out a lookout, and started cutting fire line. They were joined on the fire by the Blue Ridge Hotshots, a crew from the Coconino National Forest, who were assigned closer to Yarnell.

The area hadn’t burned through in almost half a century. In some places, the vegetation was ten to twelve feet tall and too thick to walk through.

By noon the fire had doubled in size, with a mile-wide front and forty-foot flames headed roughly north, away from the most populated areas. Hundreds of firefighters and half the available air tankers in the country were already on station, and fire managers were requesting more.

Yarnell is known as a windy place; a sign at the entrance welcomes visitors to the town “WHERE THE DESERT BREEZE MEETS THE MOUNTAIN AIR.” On the edge of the Sonoran Desert, it’s also brutally hot in midsummer. The thermometer that day read 104 degrees at 2 P.M., when a weather report came in predicting strong downdrafts from a thunderstorm building in the mountains near Prescott to the northeast.

An update at 3:26 P.M. confirmed that gusts of 40 to 50 mph were on the way. In the dry desert air, rain sometimes evaporates before it hits the ground. These half-curtains of moisture called virga cool the air, which then sinks and spreads out when it reaches the ground, causing strong winds.

Sure enough, the wind at Yarnell picked up—and reversed direction. The fire had been crawling north all day. Suddenly it surged to the southeast, straight toward Yarnell and Glen Ilah. A mandatory evacuation was issued for residents as engines and crews raced to protect the town.

Eighteen of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watched the activity from a burned-over ridge on the fire’s west edge. They were in the safest place they could be: in the black, with the fire moving away from them. Another crewmember was acting as lookout on a road half a mile below them, while the superintendent Eric Marsh was off scouting but in radio contact.

From the ridge, the hotshots could see residents driving out as the flames approached the town. Some texted their girlfriends or called family members.

Then for some reason they decided to leave the safety of their position and move south along the ridgeline, along a dirt track in the general direction of Glen Ilah.

As they hiked they would have lost sight of the fire over a ridge to their left as they stepped off the track and dropped down into the head of a wide gully where a ranch house was visible at the bottom.

Whether their plan was to defend the property, rest there, or keep going and reenage the fire—the most likely explanation—we’ll never know. It doesn’t really matter, because in the time the fire was out of sight to the hotshots, it sprinted ahead four miles and changed direction completely. It came back into view when they were above the ranch, and it was charging up the canyon towards them.

They knew then just how terrible their position was. They were standing in a deep box canyon, surrounded by boulders and tall, overreaching chaparral, with the only practical escape route blocked by an approaching wall of flames. At precisely 16:23:35 hours, one of them called in on the radio: “Granite Mountain Hotshots, we are in front of the flaming front!”

Those listening in horror on the radio could hear chain saws working as the hotshots desperately tried to clear a deployment zone. They only had a few minutes at most to burn and cut away as much of the fuels as they could.

As far as anyone can tell, everyone knew his role and carried it out. No one panicked. No one ran.

At the last possible moment they deployed their shelters, many close enough to touch. The fire overran their position at 4:42 P.M. It covered the last one hundred yards in nineteen seconds.

There was no way any of them could have lived. Temperatures at the deployment site reached over 2000˚F, with winds strong enough to lay fifty-foot flames over almost horizontal.

The lookout, the only survivor, sat stunned in one of the crew trucks after he heard the news. He had only been with the crew for two years. When the cab started to fill with beeps and rings—calls and texts from crew members’ loved ones, hoping they might somehow still pick up—he had to get out.

Yarnell wasn’t a big wildfire. When it was fully contained on July 10, it had burned only eighty-four hundred acres and destroyed 127 homes. But it was the sixth deadliest for American firefighters in history. The nineteen hotshots were the highest number of paid wildland firefighters ever to die in a single event—although the seventy-eight firefighters killed during the Big Burn of 1910 would have been paid if they’d survived.

IN THE FIRST FIRE investigation report, the Arizona Department of Forestry said the disaster was the result of poor communications combined with a catastrophic fire situation. It emphasized that the events leading up to the deployment would never be fully known because there were no eyewitnesses left alive.

Nonetheless, nobody knew exactly where the crew was or what their plans were. They were eventually hidden by smoke and couldn’t call on air attack for a retardant drop or directions to safety.

That’s part of the story. But it doesn’t answer the big question: why they left the safe zone at all. A second report commissioned by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health offered one explanation. Among other things, it said, the Arizona Department of Forestry had “prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety.”

In fact, fire managers had surveyed Yarnell, Glen Ilah, and Peeples Valley the night before the burnover and decided they were “indefensible.”

The next day nineteen firefighters died trying to do just that.

The result? A fine of $559,000 against the Department of Forestry, including $25,000 for each of the victims’ families. An appeal is pending.

It’s true that no one will ever know exactly what the Granite Mountain Hotshots were thinking as they started down that ridge to their deaths. We can make a pretty good guess, though.

Odds are they wanted to get back in the fight. It’s perfectly understandable. “Life and property” is our creed as firefighters. It’s programmed into your brain from day one. It’s what we do: we provide a service to the people of the United States.

No one wants to be benched. You want to be in the shit, to be able to say “I was there.” That’s human, the lure of action. It’s like dreaming about making the winning touchdown or beating the buzzer with a fadeaway three-pointer. This game, though, can cost you your life, and that’s the fine line: to dance, or to step back and take the next song.

I’m not making any judgments about their decision. They were taking a calculated risk and they knew it. I’ve done it myself, especially when I was younger. I’ve gotten myself in situations I never should have been in, ones that I look back on now and cringe. I’ve had crew members get so excited to get in the fight I’ve had yell at them to calm down, relax, remind them we’re getting paid by the hour and we’re all going home tonight.

There has always been an implicit understanding that firefighters have an obligation to fight harder when homes are at risk. Depending on the mission, if those buildings are empty, that needs to change.

And it is: after Yarnell, Lewis and Clark County in Montana passed a resolution explicitly saying that firefighter safety takes precedence over saving homes or structures. Other counties have followed its lead.

If that ranch in the canyon had been an elementary school, hell yeah, go down and save those kids. Otherwise a building is just a building. Life and property—but property second. It’s easy to say after the fact, but it’s something we need to drum into our operators in the field.

We’re not fire shepherds or fire scientists, we’re firefighters. Anyone who fights for a living knows you can’t win every time. Boxers will get hit, matadors will get gored. The list goes on.

The more we understand that in the fire service, the better off we will be. We walk around with a false sense of security that some agencies pound in our brain: If you just pay attention in safety class, nothing will go wrong and you’ll always be safe.

But that’s not the way it always works in the real world. In my opinion, we should have continuing education and frequent, graphic reminders that show us what happens when careless or stupid mistakes are made, and things go terribly wrong—things that only emergency or military personnel would normally see. We all need to remember the fire service is a dynamic and sometimes hazardous occupation.

The Yarnell fire couldn’t have just been allowed to burn. When you’ve kept fire out of a system for long enough, it’s not safe or practical to turn around and let it right back in again.

One way to ease the transition is by selectively removing the most flammable fuels, like dense underbrush and insect-killed trees, through cutting or controlled burning.

Thinning isn’t cheap, though. The Forest Service spent over $300 million on thinning barely 1 percent of its land in 2013. Budgets are tighter every year. And if a fire is big enough, it doesn’t matter if a forest was thinned or not.

A controlled burn is faster and requires fewer resources—as long as it stays controlled. In May 2000, a controlled burn at Bandelier National Monument in northern New Mexico escaped and turned into a forty-eight-thousand-acre blaze that destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos and buildings at Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Luckily none contained any nuclear materials.)

Some people worry that “selective fuels reduction” could actually lead to more development in danger zones by making them seem less dangerous. It’s like the idea that seat belts encourage more reckless driving.

Development in the wildland-urban interface isn’t going to stop overnight. But local governments can look carefully at zoning laws and building codes, and consider raising taxes on homes in fire-prone areas.

We already factor in the risk of natural hazards like floods, earthquakes, and storms in land-use decisions. Why not fires? California’s new fire hazard severity zone maps are a good start, used for guiding building codes, though they’ll be better once they incorporate local wind patterns.

Crazy weather events are already starting to make insurance companies raise homeowners’ rates. Some companies are even getting into the firefighting business themselves. In some parts of California, AIG’s Wildfire Protection Unit will spray the homes of high-end customers with foam or fire retardant, before or even during a wildfire. They emphasize it’s a “loss mitigation service,” not a private fire department, but it doesn’t sound that far off to me.

Homeowners should take responsibility for choosing to live in fire-prone areas. They should never expect firefighters to risk their lives without question, especially if homeowners haven’t done anything to prepare.

Your local fire department will be more than happy to do a property inspection, test your smoke alarms, and much more. They should be able to tell you how to install an outdoor sprinkler system and clear a safety zone around your property, and give you a long list of things you can do to make your house more defensible before the flames are right around the corner.

In the end, it’s up to firefighters whether or not to engage. In the fire service, at least in the United States, we all operate under a set of safety rules and guidelines based on lessons learned from decades of deadly fires.

The Ten Standard Firefighting Orders were created in 1957. They have been updated since then, and now range from specific (post lookouts, identify escape routes) to general (be alert, act decisively).

The Eighteen Watchout Situations, added later, are times firefighters should be extra vigilant: when they’re building fire line downhill with fire below, when their overall assignment isn’t clear, when they can’t see the main fire, things like that. Even taking a nap near the fire line.

The “10 & 18” are the closest thing firefighting has to a holy scripture. They’re drummed into us during training and often posted on station walls or even in the head, so we can review them while attending to other duties. I was trained at Kernville to know them verbatim; get any wrong during an inspection and you’d be hating life.

These checklists have saved lives. That’s not debatable. Memorizing them isn’t enough, though. Firefighters need to do more than just obey a set of rules. We need to know how to operate safely and effectively in intense situations.

People don’t think clearly when they’re tired and stressed, let alone panicked. Our minds naturally go into tunnel-vision mode and start to cling to plans, any plan, even if the situation has changed dramatically.

The Forest Service offers great classroom education and hands-on training. Instructors from the military and retired fire personnel teach things like leadership and decision making, risk assessment, how to work in collaborative settings, and understanding the difference between managing and leading.

We have very smart, highly educated people in the fire service, and many of them are not being used to their full potential. After the fact, after a fuckup, everyone suddenly has the fix for what went wrong.

Not enough attention is being paid to those who are trying to bring awareness to new, better technology and solutions that could help keep some of these disasters from happening.

And paradoxically, “back to the basics” is something we neglect every day in our profession: things like how to take care of personal protective gear, basic compass and radio skills, and first aid and survival techniques.

If you don’t want to be a tech geek, fine—but don’t let your pride get in the way of asking someone else how to use your gear. Try to learn everything you can and refresh your knowledge as often as possible. Be part of the solution, not the problem.

Hands-on training in the field under experienced professionals is especially important for new firefighters. Learning skills like mindfulness and situational awareness help you stay aware and adaptable—and in a dynamic situation like a wildfire, that means alive. It would be good to have classes on common sense and accountability.

They’re hard things to teach, but critical.

One thing that isn’t hard is giving people the best tools for the job. If the Granite Mountain crew had had some of the safety technology that is already available, who knows, things might have turned out differently.