Praying for loved ones of fallen Arizona hot shot crew

July 03, 2013 12:40 pm
This past week one of the fellows I met on the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources journey around Montana kept us updated on the temperatures at his home in Phoenix, which were to rise to 118 degrees.

The only time I’ve experienced that kind of heat was on a wildland fire. I was a member of a 20-person crew from the Malheur National Forest dispatched to Tucson to battle a blaze where temperatures reached 122 degrees.

We were put on the night shift and warned of tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes. I encountered each of these creatures during the fire, luckily at a safe distance. But the heat was the biggest risk we were to encounter.

Each night we were shuttled by Dusenhalfs on long, uncomfortable rides to the front where we hiked the hillsides of southern Arizona to mop up hot spots outside of the fire line. During the day we attempted to sleep, which was nearly impossible, so we spent most of our time sipping water at the mess tent in order to keep from turning into raisins.

Of the fires that blazed across the state in late June 1990, the Dude Fire that burned to the north of us on the Tonto National Forest, was to take the lives of six firefighters. 

In 1993, I was hired to run a fire crew in Colorado by Paul Gleason — one of the people who had found the bodies of the dead crew members on the Dude Fire. Horrified by that tragedy, Gleason began a nationwide program called LCES, or Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones — a message seen on T-shirts of our own local firefighters in Northeast Oregon.

Gleason was a mentor not to be matched who was not only the toughest man I ever knew, but one who had a deep appreciation for the instinct of the Native Americans and the ancient war strategies of Sun Tzu.

During my journey around Montana this past week, a reporter from the Helena Independent Record and I discussed the difference between irony and coincidence. In light of recent events, I’ve been mulling this for several days.

Is it coincidence that my freelancer friend from Phoenix returned home the day an entire Arizona hot shot crew was killed? Is it irony that John Maclean, writer of wildland fire disasters, posted a photograph of Paul Gleason hours before the news broke of the deaths of the Prescott Granite crew? Is it coincidence that our busload of fellows drove through Seeley Lake where Maclean is writing his latest work just a few days ago? Is it ironic that I dropped off another reporter at the Missoula Airport Sunday afternoon, home to one of the largest smoke jumper bases in the country, in a city with a world-renowned university fire laboratory?

Alone in my hotel room basking in the glow of an Orioles’ sweep of the Yankees Sunday night I read a post from my Phoenix friend of the firefighters’ deaths somewhere outside of Yarnell — equidistant from Phoenix as the Dude Fire, but to the northwest. For hours I searched the Internet for more information while texting and emailing friends about the tragedy. I was shaken to the core. An entire crew died together when the wind dramatically shifted, pushing the range fire back over them in what is called a “flash over.”

In a recent internet post by Maclean, he said he was infuriated that a fire raging outside of Colorado Springs was being called the most destructive in U.S history due to the amount of homes lost. He countered that a fire that took lives, not houses, was much more destructive. Is it irony that he mentioned this just days before 19 people died while deploying fire shelters? Is it coincidence that the day after this disaster the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest was to host a conference call on the upcoming fire season?

I will leave the irony/coincidence argument to the grammarians. For now I pray for the loved ones of the Granite Hot Shot Crew and for the safety of those who continue to fight the blazes of the West this summer.