In Memoriam: Granite Mountain Hotshots

Hi, all. I was going to post a bit about the recent GCLS conference I attended in Dallas, but events over the weekend have taken precedence over that. I’ll do that later on.

I was traveling on Sunday, and didn’t find out about the tragedy that unfolded near Yarnell, Arizona, until early Monday morning. I heard “Hotshots” and “deaths” on NPR and rushed into the other room to listen to the whole story because like every westerner, fire season puts me on edge. When a firefighter is lost, we all grieve. Nineteen, said the NPR host. Nineteen firefighters dead, the most in a single event since 9/11. Find their names and a bit about them at the Washington Post.

Source: Granite Mountain Hotshots

The Granite Mountain Hotshots — like every Hotshot team — are an elite firefighting unit, trained to go in on foot and clear brush and create firebreaks. Hotshots are kind of like the SEALs of firefighting. They’re in top physical condition, able to carry up to 50 pounds of gear on their backs as they’re racing up and down mountainsides in temperatures often over a hundred degrees, digging, pulling, clearing. They are infantry forces, engaged in a battle against raging wildfires, humping their gear in and out, gauging the strategy of the opponent, creating defenses, surveilling, plotting retreat and advance lines. Until Sunday, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were a 20-member team.

Outside Magazine has a photo gallery of Hotshots in action, as well as other wildfire fighting tools. This is part of what Hotshots do, and it’s part of why they are so revered to westerners like me. In this high-tech world, these people go to battle with muscle, pickaxes, and shovels. They’re like archetypal Viking warriors or something, reeking of smoke, spattered with dirt, grime, soot, and sometimes blood. They embody the mythos of the West, the “hunker-down-and-get-‘er-done” pioneer spirit we all like to pretend we still have.

So when the Hotshots show up in town, it’s like the cavalry riding in. It’s like a military force arriving to help you out when you’re under attack. When you see the slurry bombers overhead, dropping their loads across smoking ridgelines, every westerner thinks about the Hotshots on the ground, carrying their gear, dressed in heavy, hot fire-retardant clothing, doing battle. And we all hope for the best for them, and we all hope they’ll come home safely. Logically, we can imagine the risks they’re taking, to battle those fires. Or rather, we think we can imagine. But we really can’t, unless we’ve been there. We can’t really imagine the heat, the flames, the dirt, the exhaustion, the aches and pains that come with brutally hard physical labor against a raging wildfire. So we try to imagine, and we hope that they’ll come home okay, that their friends and family will see them again, and that they’ll make it through this fire season for the next one.

When they don’t come home, we grieve. We mourn. We may not be immediate friends or family, but we are community, and every summer — every fire season — they become part of our community families. When they don’t come home, they become part of our community remembrance, and part of our collective history. They are dear to us, these Hotshots. They are everything we should aspire to be, in community service, hard work, and the sheer, fierce joy they take in this huge responsibility with which we’ve entrusted them.

To the Granite Mountain Hotshots, thank you for your service. You will be remembered. To their friends and families, our thoughts are with you, and your loved ones will not be forgotten.

And to all emergency service personnel, thank you for all you do.

To contribute to memorial funds for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, click here.

For more information about Hotshots and what they do, see the following links.

Kyle Dickman is a former Tahoe Hotshot who is now an associate editor at Outside Magazine. Here’s his recent story about spending some time with his old Hotshot crew, “In the Line of Wildfire.”

Here’s Dickman on the Yarnell Hill Fire, in which the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died. “Examining the Arizona Wildfire Deaths.”

Here’s the link for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, Arizona. You can get a sense of who they were and what they were looking for in team members.

And here’s a photo gallery from Outside Magazine. These photos were taken last year. These are members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Some of the men pictured here died in Sunday’s fire.

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