Nineteen Souls

Stefan Jacke July 1, 2013 0

By Stefan Jacke
Herne Speaks |

580193_202366809918209_1926736821_nNineteen souls, hotshots lost near Yarnell. Let me put this in perspective. These are about the baddest of the bad. Only jumpers have more training. A ‘shot is a young kid, say about nineteen to twenty-four years old, working in one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, where everything can change, in fractions of a second. If a crew is deployed in chaparral, a fire dependent species, and it is hot, very hot, and they are moving uphill, and the wind changes, everything changes.

Wildland fire creates its own wind. If there is no safe place to retreat, no already charred earth, you are fuel, too. The fabled ‘fire shelters’, resembling aluminum pup tents, are cynically called, “shake and bakes”. Fire creates its own wind, and firefighters know, full well, that wind can be strong enough to pull their so-called, “shelters” off, and away from them. This is always in the back of your mind, as you slog along the line, rooting away at the ground.

Usually, ‘shots are college kids, earning enough, hopefully, to get them through another couple of semesters at school, and they earn it. Granite Mountain Hotshots were unique. They were all regular firefighters from the City of Prescott. Therein lies the only difference. Like their brothers and sisters, these were young people, mainly in their twenties; men who disregarded inherent danger, in lieu of completing their mission.  Their training is about as abusive as that of Airborne Rangers. They work out and run, miles and miles, every day, at altitude. Just qualifying for this torment is miraculous. Working the line is a full day, often from before dawn, until after dusk, bent over, rooting around with a Pulaski, scraping the ground with a McCloud or Number One shovel, or working a chainsaw. Maybe, you’ll get a decent, hot breakfast. Maybe you won’t. You can count on a couple of baloney sandwiches and some crushed chips, and a candy bar, maybe a piece of fruit, for lunch. And, let’s not forget the ever present boxes of skittles. If you’re lucky, there might even be a frozen bean burrito. If you’re lucky, you won’t have to eat MREs. Yes, Hotshots are the elite of the fire service.

Labeling these dedicated souls as “heroes” would be an embarrassing insult to most of them. A “hero” is just a great, big sandwich. It is a very safe assumption to make, that not one of them would consider what they do, the least bit heroic. They’re just doing a job; a dirty, dangerous, thankless job which very few have the courage and stamina to do. It is a job which goes unnoticed, by the general public, until something awful happens. Then, politicians pontificate and pose for photo-ops, and babble on about something else they don’t understand.  Talking heads use this as another excuse to foment infotainment.

Hotshot crews are composed of both genders, too. Remember that. Wildland firefighting is one of the very rare egalitarian realities on this planet. We work together, suffer together, pick dirt out of our food together, and collapse together. Then, after all too brief a down time, we get up, and do it again. My heart aches at the thought of another crew being lost. The horror of ‘The Dude’ was bad enough. Survivors wandered around, afterward, in base camp, with thousand yard stares in their eyes, and such pale horror on their faces, that they were unrecognizable, even to people who knew them. This is unimaginable. Nineteen souls, hotshots lost near Yarnell: nineteen kids.

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