Nineteen Souls

Nineteen 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, typically, 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. May 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 often 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 unrecogniseable, even to people who knew them. This is unimaginable. Nineteen souls, hotshots, lost near Yarnell: nineteen kids.

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About Stefan Jacke

MagicRobert presented me with a vellum document, composed in an insane script. We were in a well secured vault in the Michener Library. His face exploded into a broad smile, as he saw me recognize the words, "That government governs best which governs least." It was a copy of "On Civil Disobedience" in the author's own hand. The experience called to mind a conversation Henry David Thoreau had with Ralph Waldo Emerson, as Thoreau sat in a jail cell, incarcerated for protesting the Mexican War. Emerson asked, "David, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau responded, "The point is, Ralph, what are you doing out there?" Once, long ago, I jumped off of big red trucks, lifted weights, and cleaned toilets for a living. Then I wrestled drunks, ran around in circles, and got splattered with blood and all manner of body fluids for a living. Now I enjoy the stillness of early morning in my rocking chair on the porch, with a hot cup of coffee, trying in vain to forget the past. Thank you, Robert!
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2 Responses to Nineteen Souls

  1. Dr Stan Rocklin says:

    Good work Stefan….good writing skills, good thinking.

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