Granite Mountain Hot Shots

A Different Breed

So, I'm going to write this the day after one of the most tragic incidents I've ever had the chance of thanking my lucky stars over. For anyone that doesn't know me, I'm a bit of a lucky dude and I've lived a pretty charmed life. I've never been through anything super horrendous, while taking a LOT of chances. I've been in the US. Army, the Marine Corps, and I did some time as a Wildland Firefighter.

Now as it is quickly becoming common knowledge, yesterday there was a Hotshot Squad called Granite Mountain Hotshots, that was burned over and killed 19 of its 20 members. Honestly folks...I want to share this story mainly because it's absolutely interesting.

Three years ago I spent a summer on a Wildland Firefighting Type III engine in Tonto Basin, based out of Punkin Center next to the Roosevelt Lake Dam. It was a pretty incredible summer, and the knowledge I learned there and the folks that I met were amazing and to this day I really don't think I've had quite the amazing experience as I did that summer. I always felt as if I was an outsider looking in(maybe it was because I was a rookie and in a club full of boys born and bred to hike mountains).

Let me start off by describing my impression of a Hot Shot: Hot Shot's are kind of super human, they are IN shape. They aren't impressive, they aren't even really very fancy. A majority of hotshots are just simple men with simple mechanics and they can run for days, and hike for years. Some are short, some are tall, more often than not they aren't even that muscular. The one defining thing I have found about most Hot Shot is that he doesn't really complain.

I come from the culture of the Marine Corps, where the THING to do is to complain. There isn't a lot of it in wild land firefighting. In fact I would say it is in fact a pride point that there isn't a lot of it. If there is complaining it's normally very light hearted. People do wild land firefighting for a lot of reasons, but more often than not the main reason is that they LOVE good work. You can make okay money, but it's nothing impressive. You can go on a lot of adventures, but you won't be doing a lot but being in nature on those adventures. More often than not, you are training really hard, and having both your brain and your body put to the test during wildland firefighting.

I was only on a engine crew, but even that had merit. I've always told folks that were young and looking to join the military this "I worked more hours and harder days in one week, not on a fire than I did in a month in the Marine Corps in the field". I mean every single word when I say that. Your week basically consists of having your engine ready, driving around looking for fires. If there aren't fires, and your on the clock....you're busy. You get a one hour lunch break.

My boss in the Forest Service was a former Hot Shot for both Globe & Payson. My other boss had been doing the fire engine thing for about 7 years, his name was Kyle. Kyle was a goofy guy, with a keen intelligence in almost all things fire. He had been in fire since he was 18 I think. He had lived in Forest Service provided housing, and had spent a LOT of time for the Forest Service. He wasn't very serious mannered, but damn did he know how to do everything well.

I would like to think that my summer working with those two fellows was probably the keenest trained I have ever been in my life. If you asked me any question related to my job I could answer it. If you asked me almost any question related to my bosses job, I could answer it(not all the way right, but I could get a lot of them). I was like a sponge. There is nothing to do but learn in the Forest Service.

In the hundreds of different courses offered in Wildland Firefighting there is a common theme amongst them all, and that is history. History has made it what it is today. Fire Fighting wasn't always as safe as it is today. In fact, it's still not safe. I do believe in Canada they haven't even adopted Fire Shelters or protective equipment standards. In the United States and general forestry, you are the living embodiment and monument to those that have dug line before you.

When folks die in fire, they aren't grieved for too long. More than likely the incident will be reviewed, analyzed, and reviewed one million more times each time by a different peer in the field. Books will be written about those incidents. Everytime someone dies in the forest service, someone learns.

It's sad to say, but at the same time it's an amazing monument and testament to the fallen. What better way to be remembered than by helping save the lives of those who will come after you. We can build hundreds of monuments, we can name thousands of baseball fields, but ultimately the ability to save lives and do good in a long term and perhaps historical nature is in fact the legacy of the fallen fire fighter.

When I was bored in fire fighting. I read books about fires. I read books about folks telling stories about having to shelter up. I read books about the folks that did survive, and I also read books about the folks that did not survive. I read books about the successes and about failures. For being at the bottom of the totem pole in wildland firefighting, it was just amazing to see 18 year old young men around me grow with a maturity much faster than I had witnessed in the military.

Today, we learned that 19 folks died in a fire from the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. It's only been three seasons since I left the engine crew, but I remember noticing the subtle differences about the different types of crews when I was out. Hot shot crews from Payson, Gila, Geronimo, Granite Mountain....all just absolutely insanely good at what they did. Payson Hot Shots were elite, they looked like the special forces of the civilian world. Filthy dirty, stinky monuments to what it means to really own your life. Geronimo Hot Shots were always very stalwart I noticed. The Globe Hot Shots were the fun guys, but you could tell they were good at what they did. The Pleasant Valley folks were from the boonies, and their fun light blue hats always let you know they were around. You would see buggies from the Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crews roll into the fire camp and you would see men that knew what they needed to get done to make the next day go successfully.

Hot Shots are purposed folk. They also carry legacies, legacies that no Foreman or Superintendent is ever going to let them forget. Legacies that it isn't hard to buy into, they are pride points. No one joins a hot shot crew because they did not want to. Every man on a Hot Shot Crew KNOWS what he's going to be doing, and KNOWS what they are in for. It's a different breed to observe these folks in action.

So today we bid farewell to the Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew. It's a shame that so many men lost their lives. I think one thing that's often said without thinking is "without purpose". I would beg to differ with any that would make this statement. The bottom line is the men that lost their lives yesterday didn't lose them without purpose. They lost their lives doing something not a lot of American's will ever have the ability to do. They did something that no one in the military will ever do. Through the power of pure good will they were doing something that had no negatives. They were doing the right thing, and the good thing with pretty much no negative repercussions. It's a hard thing to do. Some would argue nature would disagree. I don't think that is the case. I think nature would say self-preservation is just as important.

I didn't know any of those fellahs that died. I do know their type, and I know what they are like. If there is any in the United States worthy of being called a hero, let us bypass the military, let us bypass the police. Let's look towards the wildland firefighters. They are the some of the hardest training, dirtiest, most awesome folks we could ever imagine. They are the apex of humanity in a nation where we have become out of touch with reality.

I can only hope that going forward we do not sully their names with political banter. I have always said that the Forest Service may in fact be the only organization made by our government that knows how to get the job done. I hope they will let them do their jobs here and learn from what happened to those men yesterday and apply those lessons forward so that their monuments aren't material in nature, but a lasting legacy of survival for those to come.

7/1/2013
Sam Clark