By Carla G. Harper
Note: The Yarnell Hill Fire was a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, ignited by lightning on June 28, 2013. On June 30, it overran and killed 19 City of Prescott firefighters, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. This is a fictional ode to those men.
I wake up at night, still, from a dream filled with those sounds – the yells, the crackling, the wind caused by an inferno of metal melting heat.
“Slats, you’re on watch, man. You know what to do.”
Those were the last words my Captain would speak to me. Captain Joe Caldwell hailed from some remote hollow in the mountains of North Carolina with a name meaningless to us. A Marine with creds from the three Middle East conflicts beginning in 1990, Joe’s arms and legs looked like tree trunks.
He held out the radio and gave me his reassuring wink. A piece of grass or something sat in the corner of his mouth, as usual.
I noticed the body language, eyes cast down, heads slightly shaking, especially among the veteran firefighters. They too were soldiers, in a sense, and would not voice opposition to their captain’s decision. A rookie cutting line is one thing, judging fire behavior and evaluating safety routes is another.
The night before we ate, talked and tried to sleep, but the wind refused us rest. Our second in command, a third generation fire guy from Alma, Texas, talked about how scared shitless he was about the birth of his first child – a boy, due in just a few weeks.
Our best sawyer, a dude we called “Honcho” with a big temper and veteran father of four at 25, laughed. “Man, it’s the best complete life changer you’ll ever have. It’s addicting. You’ll want to have more. And, hey, lots of fun to make them, right man.”
Another former Marine from Tillar, Arkansas told a few stories about some of the women he’d known for a night, picked up in German discos where music pumped so loud your beer shook and the only light a periodic strobe. “It was like catfish noodling,” he said deadpan, “you just stick your hand in and hope you bring back one worth keeping.”
As usual, Joe began breaking camp before dawn. “Get up girls. I smell smoke.”
The wind had died down, and a smoky haze filtered the air. “First, we put a line down the ridge to the chopper landing. Evac routes stay the same. Nobody leaves their shelter here,” he said.
Shelters are the wildland firefighters last resort. Most would rather attempt to run from a fire than lie face down on the ground under a piece of reflective fabric that comes apart at 500 degrees. The heat of a rolling crown fire is 1200 degrees plus. Three hundred will kill you immediately.
The shelter will reflect heat and trap cool air inside for minutes; save you if the fire burns over top, and if you find a spot of bare ground with no vegetation.
When we hiked in on Friday, packing all the usual gear – chainsaws, Pulaskis, shovels, fire shelters – the fire had scorched about 200 acres. One of the guys whistled the theme to Sponge Bob. We all sang. “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea. Sponge Bob Square Pants…”
Temperatures hovered around 110 degrees. One of our Squad Bosses from Ekalaka, Montana, kept saying, “it’s dry as a popcorn fart” as we cleared brush and small trees, digging a fireline. The heat evaporated sweat before it surfaced on our skin.
Building fire line is our bread and butter. Using an anchor point, like a stream or canyon, we open up a strip of land, taking away all the vegetation and digging down to mineral soil. Sometimes the fire obeys our line, sometimes not.
Silent Hill, Arizona is pure Sonoran Desert. As you head up in elevation, chaparral becomes common, followed by piñon pine and juniper. Above that, Ponderosa pine dominates the landscape.
We watched chain lightning pop all over Cheveyo Mountain from the station that Thursday night.
By Friday morning, 40 active fires burned across the West. A mere eight air tankers and two DC-10s humped it all over the region attempting to provide air support for literally thousands of people working in some capacity on the ground.
Joe stayed half-pissed off about the shrinking access to air power.
He had worked all the big fires, including Rodeo-Chediski in 02 – one of the monster fires, burning nearly half a million acres in Arizona. Joe said, “During Rodeo-Chediski we had 42 contract air tankers and another four on call. Hell, now I gotta compete with California to get one damn dump.”
On Saturday morning, the deep blue skies showed zero chance of rain, yet the wind picked up. A desire for rain is something so intense for wildland firefighters that some of us even resort to praying for it. Garrett Carter from Hot Springs, South Dakota talked out loud to God as if he were right there with us. “Lord, you know how bad this ole scorched earth needs some rain. Bring it on. Bring it on down.”
Everybody loved Garrett but steered clear of the Jesus talk. He’d singled me out in the weeks before. It had started to get on my nerves. I didn’t want to talk about my past or the future he was selling. The only thing I missed about the life I’d left back in Tahoe was white powder mornings on my snowboard. Those mornings had faded into a string of hangovers and strange couches shared with even stranger girls.
My brothers headed up and down ridges all morning, digging and cutting in a line. As lookout, I watched from an east facing slope and relayed information by radio.
Joe dubbed me “Slats” right after I joined the Silent Hill Hotshots. It stuck. I’m about six-five and weigh a little over 170 pounds soaking wet. Most guys on the team are solid, daunting and muscular – that’s a profile for the firefighting army. Hotshots are to the land managing agencies – U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs – what SEALS are to the Navy. Hotshots are the first in and the last out.
I came to Silent Hill in 2008 on a stinking hot wind, like an old stray that everybody loves but nobody wants. Maybe it was fate, like Oedipus. No matter how far he ran, the outcome was written in the stars.
I’m alive. But they, the best men I ever knew, what my dad would call “America’s finest,” left their hearts like char on that hillside. Mother nature will only be cheated for so long. People kept fire out for 100 years, but when it comes back to these dry, forgotten places, it comes with a vengeance.
Maybe I’m left to tell what I saw that day, or maybe I’m crazy. The photos didn’t capture it. Why? Hell, I’ll never know.
For some reason, I had to witness those bags, filled with the remains of my brothers, wrapped one-by-one with the American flag. As long as I live, I’ll never forget that day. All that red, white and blue against the black, lifeless rock at the base of Cheveyo Mountain.
Nobody ever asked for the lookout job. But, we all knew its importance. Joe stressed that all the time. A lookout has only one responsibility – keep one eye on the fire and the other on the crew. If things get crazy, radio the bosses to reposition, get to safety zones. It takes concentration and confidence.
My parents had disconnected my cell phone and changed the password on their bank accounts in May of 08. A month later I ditched what had turned out to be a not so friendly ride from a diner in Tahoe, at a gas station in Arizona. I’d never heard of the place, but the sign on the outskirts of town said, “Where the Desert Breeze Meets the Mountain Air.”
Bewildered, I stood around the gas station trying to formulate a plan. Nothing came to me, so I randomly approached a guy about my age as he pulled up.
“Where ya heading,” he asked focusing more on pumping gas than me.
I shrugged and said, “I need a place to crash for a few days, way to make some cash.”
He sized me up. “You look pretty unhealthy, man; could probably use a workout.”
He finished pumping his gas while I stood like an idiot. When he went in to pay, I walked to the other side of the station to try my luck with the next person.
Through the open passenger window, he yelled, “Are you gonna get in or not, man?”
That was Kevin Everhart. We went straight from the gas station to the gym where he worked.
After a hot shower, I found Kevin spotting a huge guy – Joe – under a load I’d only seen pumped by Russians on late night ESPN. As a former baseball player, gyms were a familiar place. I jumped in and acted like I worked there. Within a week, Kevin convinced the manager to hire me. I couch surfed in the meantime at an old house downtown where Kevin and five other guys lived. In a long past heyday, the place belonged to some wealthy family.
Me, Kevin and three of the other guys from the old house ended up as Silent Hill Hotshots. Kevin and I signed on the same day in August of 08. The gym would become a second home to everyone on the team.
Nobody ever asked about where I’d been or how I got there. I didn’t volunteer anything but name, rank and serial number, so to speak. As a kid, my dad told me numerous times, “Boy, if you’re ever captured behind enemy lines, give nothing. Nothing ‘cept name, rank and serial number.”
It had always seemed like a joke to me until then, far from home and totally unsure of what to expect.
At fourteen, I got the courage to venture a question about the odd things my dad did and said. Mom’s hands didn’t stop slicing okra with a long, wooden-handled knife nor did her eyes rest long on mine. She simply said, “Son, Daddy was kept in a 5 x 6 cell by the Viet Cong for two years. Let’s be patient with him.”
Before I could ask even the first most basic question that popped into my mind, she sent me on an errand. End of conversation, forever. I got the basic outline of what her words meant from the public library. It was a good place to stay cool in summer while Mom shopped.
From then through senior year, I focused on baseball. It worked pretty well until my arm blew out during sophomore year of college. My scholarship got revoked.
One day Joe came into the gym and talked to Kevin and me about a team of firefighters the fire department wanted to create. “You boys want to try out,” Joe asked.
“Try out,” I responded. “How do you try out to be a firefighter. Doesn’t that job require a degree or at least a certificate and a bunch of training?”
Joe laughed. “You’ll be fighting wildfire, and the training is on the job. Most of what you need you’ve got right here in the gym – stamina, and strength.”
The pay far exceeded the gym’s, and it came with government benefits.
On Saturday, the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours. Joe called in 8,000 gallons of fire retardant and three more hotshot crews.
On Sunday morning, he called in more air support and a full-on Type I team. By 3:00 pm that day, we’d had 68 drops; that’s 115,000 gallons of retardant. Tankers bounced like ping pong balls all over the West as one bone dry forest after another exploded, not giving one shit who or what it consumed.
That last morning, part of our crew moved down off the east side to follow the edge of the fire for a while and brush out the ridge. The rest worked in the steep chutes. Rocks kept rolling down. They tried cup trenching but could not hold the line.
I took my post on a hill facing the west slope of Cheveyo Mountain. From my vantage point, I could see the fire flaring up sporadically below in the brush. They cut line in the saddles. Joe figured if it blew up it would run the saddles.
I could hear Joe and Kevin over the radio talking about cutting a line down the hill. “It looks ugly.”
“Might be sparse at the bottom.”
“We could probably get away with it.”
Through binoculars I watched Joe and Kevin walk down the hill a little ways. A tree about 40 yards from where they stood started a little run about five feet wide to the top. Our crew put it out and then began opening up a seven-foot line down the hill.
At 4:00 pm a Helitack crew bumped water down the ridge. Six more tankers were ordered for retardant at 4:10 pm. Only one would come.
About this time, the wind shifted 180 degrees. Gusts picked up from 22 mph to 41 mph in minutes. Over the radio, the Helitak Commander said, “This thing is on the move. You’ve got 5,000 burning.”
At 4:26 pm, the wind and approaching thunderstorms put all air power on the ground.
The radio buzzed with comments like, “Let’s get crews outta here.”
I keyed my radio that shared a channel with Joe as I watched the column growing, coming from the west. “Hey Captain, get those guys outta that drainage.”
Fire jumped over the ridge and spotted directly below our crew. I could see hard hats moving slowly above it. Joe didn’t answer me. I could see him and Kevin on top of the ridge waving them up.
The guys below didn’t yet know the fire was running after them. They still had their packs on. Honcho still shouldered his saw.
I keyed the radio for the last time, “Joe, Joe! There’s no time. You gotta deploy.”
I threw down my binoculars and zoomed in with the camera and started pressing the shutter button.
A wall of flames was moving up the hill toward the group. They were moving faster now, all together. I could hear yelling.
Joe comes into the viewer, followed by Kevin. They are both literally grabbing guys by the shirt and yanking them up the hill.
I’m counting like a schoolteacher and ticking off the names as the shelters begin popping up.
Somebody is moving around the huddle. It looks like he’s helping secure shields. It’s nobody I recognize. It’s a 20th man. My mind is racing.
I’m thinking, how did one of the Helitack guys get down there? No way could they get to that point so fast. I can’t make out the face clearly, even with the zoom. He’s wearing the same yellow hardhat, yellow shirt and green pants as the others.
I’m pressing the shutter button to get a fix on the 20th man when the fire blows up – 200-foot tall flame lengths curling toward the smokey sky. It was like watching a tiger stalking prey and then just kicking it in, over taking them.
With a blowup comes violent convection. The hot wind swept across the mountain shoving me down, singeing my face and hair.
I hear their cries in spite of the inferno. Then it gets nuclear quiet, except for the fire’s crackle. Things are fuzzy after that for a long stretch.
When I walk in the base camp, everybody stares at me, like I’m in shock or might go ballistic.
The Silent Hill Fire Department Chief is there, nice guy. He comes over to where I’m sitting alone. “Are you okay, son?”
Words won’t yet form. My hands are shaking. I keep wiping at my eyes. “Son, calm down,” he’s saying.
I can’t really hear him. It’s like my head is in a jar. He’s leaning down to put a hand on my shoulder. “You did your job. It’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault; everybody did their job. We heard you on the radio.”
I’m talking back finally but in the voice of a madman.
“We’ll find the remains. If somebody else was on the hill, we will find him,” he assures me.
That night I downloaded my photos to a laptop and combed through them again and again. Nothing. Those last shots are an orange blur.
No fire had taken so many firefighters since California’s Griffith Park Fire in 1933. They lost 29 men.
The fire on Cheveyo Mountain would take 19 – maybe 20 – men and over 8,000 acres. Small acreage in comparison to the other fires.
Everyone was accounted for – all the other hotshots, hand crews, Helitack guys.
A week later the town held a memorial service. Firefighters came from as far North as Canada and South from Mexico. Every state in the country was represented. Our little town for that one day grew from about 2,000 to 40,000.
The Chief asked me to speak. I said no at first, but then it hit me that every one of those guys would have gotten up and said something. What the hell could I say?Twenty-minutes before going up on that stage I still had no idea what to say, wasn’t even sure I’d go up.
An old guy with gray hair and watery blue eyes approached me. He looked down at me, and it seemed like I should know him. “I’m Fred Carter, Garrett’s father,” he said.
My heart sank. It crossed my mind that he might punch me. I wanted him to. I tried to smile but instead dropped my head and mumbled, “I’m sorry, sir, about Garrett.”
When I looked up, he’d left. A single sheet of paper lay on the chair beside me. I read it to the people packed into a gymnasium that day.
The Hotshot’s Prayer
When I am called to duty, Lord
To fight the roaring blaze
Please keep me safe and strong
I may be here for days.
Be with my fellow crew members
As we hike up to the top.
Help us cut enough line
For this blaze to stop.
Let my skills and hands
Be firm and quick.
Let me find those safety zones
As we hit and lick.
For if this day on the line
I should answer death’s call
Lord, bless my hotshot Crew
My family, one and all.
Two days later my dad showed up in his faded pick-up. I’m back home now, waiting. Soon as the call comes, I’m joining a crew in Idaho.