They were the best we had. Nineteen disciplined, courageous, self-sacrificing firefighters died this weekend in a holocaust of flame.
Make no mistake: They died for our sins.
We cannot find the words to express our grief and dismay — or our admiration.
The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew from Prescott trained hard to face the beast — the remorseless enemy of anyone who lives in and loves the forest. They could in a day hike from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon and back again. They rolled out to fight every major fire. They could hike 10 miles to a fire line, work all day in the searing heat and hike back out again, with chain saws pitched jauntily over their shoulders.
So when a lightning strike set fire to the tinder dry manzanita and scrub oak that beset the remote, rural community of Yarnell, the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew did not hesitate. They saddled up, as such men and women have always done. They hurried toward the danger that everyone else fled.
Fate, bad information or miscalculation intervened — transforming courage into tragedy. We don’t know what happened. The veteran crew created a safety zone, laid out an escape route — and turned to face the monster. But this demon is cunning and cruel. It slipped around behind them — on a swirl of wind and thunder.
Overhead, helicopter pilots worked to control the beast before it could get into Yarnell and consume a hundred dreams, a whole town full of neighbors and characters and innocents: A place like Payson or Strawberry or Pine or Whispering Pines. The pilots watched helplessly as the flames closed in — as the Dude Fire did 23 years ago when it killed six firefighters struggling to save our community.
In truth, those young Prescott firefighters would have run just as long and as strong to save us if the monster had come clawing at our door. No guesswork here: We know this. Those brave Granite Mountain firefighters died clinging to their useless fire shelters with their faces pressed desperately into the dirt, a terrible death. But when the stricken and agonizing fire commanders pulled the surviving crews back and put out the call for help — firefighters from Pine and Star Valley and Payson answered the plea. They packed their bags on an hour’s notice — though some had been up all night fighting fires of their own. They’re on the line now, with the same simple tools and the same thin fire shelters — holding the line.
We have betrayed them. We have sent them out in a hopeless struggle, out of our own foolishness.
We betrayed them by bungling the management of the forest, turning a fire-adapted system into a tinderbox.
Worse yet, we built our towns and far-flung houses in the midst of this warped and dangerous forest — with tarpaper roofs and overhanging eaves. We set little towns like Yarnell — and Pine and Strawberry and Payson and Star Valley and Christopher Creek and Rye — in the midst of this sea of flame. We built our houses so carelessly that when the monster turns toward us — all we can think to do is to ask the best of us to hold back the beast as we flee.
So Payson rejects a firewise building code — and eliminates the fire marshal’s job. So Gila County approves indefensible subdivisions with flammable roofs, no water supply and no escape route. So the Forest Service whistles and whittles and wastes year after year, diverting restoration money into the firefighting budget and bungling real solutions like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.
We do these things carelessly, although we know better. We do these things repeatedly — although we have lived through this tragedy time and again. We’re doing them at this moment — pausing just long enough to have a big funeral and intone our useless regrets.
Let this time be different. Please Lord, forgive us our sins now — if we can but renounce them.
Payson must adopt a firewise building code — to give firefighters a chance.
Gila County must overhaul its building code — and never again approve an indefensible subdivision that only the heartbreaking valor of firefighters can defend.
The Forest Service must break through its choking straitjacket of excuses and restore the forest to health — with fire returned to the natural balance.
We must establish a countywide fire protection district, to provide the resources those firefighters need.
And we citizens must insist on each of these things, as persistent and brave as a young man in the full flush of his life who runs toward the flames.
We must not betray their trust.
We must not squander their sacrifice.
Let us build this monument to them in our hearts. Let us never ask for such courage again, unless we each have done our part to make such sacrifice unnecessary.
Those who have died as well as those who run still toward the flames deserve at least that much from us.
They’re the best we have: We must live up to them.