Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Granite Mountain Hot Shots Honored

The beginning of the Honor Guard Procession approaches the intersection of highways 69 and 89A in Prescott Valley on Sunday as the bodies of the 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shot crewmembers are returned to their community.

Granite Mountain Hot Shots Honored
by Marie Jarreau


The lump in my throat gets in the way of finding words to express the grief over the deaths of 19 heroic wildlands firefighters.

The younger of my two daughters was a wildlands firefighter. Beth left that job that she loved and instead chose to become Jonathan’s bride. 

Jonathan, now my precious son-in-law, continues in a long time career as a wildlands firefighter.  Thoughts of him are always in my heart when I hear he's gone on a fire. As I think of him,  and other wildlands firefighters I came to know while living in Oregon and working as a journalist I recognize that they are a brotherhood of bright, energetic, compassionate, dedicated heroes. There are both men and women among that unique alumni.  

Though strong individuals, in a way, they seem to have similar personality traits and characteristics. I’ve thought on occasion how much young firefighters seem alike.  There’s often that easy going smile and quick wit that encases the psychological and physical ability to spring into action at a moments notice to offer help - whether to scoop up a little kid falling from his first bike ride or to don boots and appropriate gear to run toward the danger of a raging wildlands fire.

While we as non-firefighters flee the fire - the fire crews race toward the flames in an effort to cut off the fire’s fuels.  Their goal and concern: to protect lives and homes as well as the wild landscape they love. They respect fire as an intricate part of the environment and they know its dangers.  They also know that what they do is invaluable.

The loss of the Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew has brought new recognition to the sacrifice offered by all firefighters – structural and wildlands crews. There has not been such a loss of these heroes since Sept. 11, 2001.

I’ve had the honor of getting to know wildlands firefighters as a journalist and as a community member that included wildlands firefighters.  I accompanied wildlands firefighters on prescribed burns while living in Oregon in the course of writing news stories about their fire suppression efforts and practices. Losing these 19 heroes recently brought occasion for me to, again, hear people talk about their gratitude for the firefighters.

After listening to all the people who have fled wildlands fires, there seems to be a common theme that they speak to: That the hotshot crews and smoke jumpers and Forest Service fire crews run TO the fire to contain it while community people attempt to 'escape the flames.'

In truth, if they can help it, even the fire crews try NOT to go INTO the fire, rather, they use a variety of practices and techniques to contain the flames to protect lives and property.  My premise is that if they are heading TO the fire rather than away from it - they ARE, in a sense, going INTO the danger / INTO THE FIRE.

During this past week (June 30 – July 9, 2013) many of us have struggled to find ways to show our respect, offer condolences to the families, offer our own sacrifice and to honor those lost to the Yarnell Hill fire.  An impromptu memorial quickly appeared along the fence at the home base of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots in Prescott, Az.  It seemed to be the first place that people could congregate and honor those lost. A candlelight service was held at the local high school. Community meetings to address the progress of the Yarnell Fire suppression efforts also addressed the loss of the 19 firefighters.  Also addressed was the fact that one of the 20 man crew had not been among those attempting to shelter in place when the fire blew back on them because he had been assigned the duty as ‘look out’ for the crew and was in a different location.  He too, remains the subject of prayers and support, and heroic respect.

Sunday, July 7th I had intended to watch the televised broadcast of the Honor Guard Procession, bringing the bodies of the 19, from the coroner’s office in Phoenix - home to Prescott where the official memorial service would be held on Tuesday.

 As I watched the broadcast of the procession begin in Phoenix I was suddenly compelled to actually be there and so made the 45 minute to one-hour trip to just outside the Yavapai County Fairgrounds where the bodies would be delivered.  I was early enough to find an open parking spot just off the shoulder of the road at the intersection of highways 69 and 89A South. There were at least a thousand or more like minded people parked along the roadway for as far as my eyes could see. That was but a small part of the route the 19-hearse motorcade would travel from Phoenix to Prescott Valley with 'mourners' lining much of the route.


The thermometer in my vehicle read 104F for the outside temperature when I arrived about noon. We stood along the pavement waiting for the procession of 19 hearses and accompanying entourage. Large and small red, white and blue flags  and purple streamers waved above the landscape along the roadway of people and vehicles and motorcycles.

Each time I thought about how ‘hot’ it was standing beneath the blazing Arizona sun, on the black tarmac beside the roadway, I immediately remembered that exactly one week before, the 19 young men we all stood waiting for had lay huddled in the midst of the inferno’s super heated gases in individual safety shelters. Those shelters were no match for the THOSE high temperatures. 
Yes, as we all stood waiting - it was hot, but it didn’t matter. 

One young woman stood beside me with her 6 and 4 year-old fair haired sons.

“We had to be here,” she told me. “No, I didn’t know them (the firefighters) but I needed to be here.”

Plying her sons with water and shading them with an umbrella, she explained that while her younger son might not remember the event as he grows into his own manhood, they would both know that this was important, and that they as a family (dad joined them later) had attended this procession to offer their own respect for the sacrifice of what she considered – national heroes.   

After standing on the roadway for nearly four hours, we knew the procession was approaching as a dedicated Smokejumper DC3 aircraft, with jump-door open and classic red and white colors, began its flyover above us all.   

Uncontrollable tears welled up and flowed from my eyes and a large  lump developed in the midst of my throat as I saw the first of the 19 white hearses top the hill above us. Escort vehicles led the way as they turned the curve of the highway and travelled down to pass just before us. Other fire and emergency vehicles brought up the rear. The Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew's own vehicles were also in the procession along with vehicles of other wildland firefighters. 

As they travelled on into the fairgrounds the red and white DC3 flew overhead again and dropped a flurry of 19 purple streamers from the sky.

I heard someone make a comment that summed up the day’s events for me, and I know this to be true from my own experience with the environments that surround wildlands firefighters. That is: while others have come to recognize the sacrifices made by our firefighters - firefighters have been considered a community’s true heroes long before the recent great loss, and they will continue to be so.   

The sacrifice of the families and friends of these brave men can't be understated, I pray that they will all have the support and assistance they will need to get them through the pain they are enduring now and will endure for sometime, but also to appreciate that their lives, our lives are blessed to have had these heroes among us.

Hearing of their loss on June 30th, was heart wrenching for me.  One way I have tried to deal with that pain has been in writing a song in simple tribute to the Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew and their brothers and sisters who run toward the flames so others may escape the danger of fire.


 It was comfort to me to hear that from the time they were brought down from Yarnell Hill, taken to Phoenix and returned to Prescott, througout the memorial, through funeral arrangements and burial  there was a fellow firefighter accompanying them.

Even through this deep loss one item of hope and salvation rests with the fact that Brendan McDonough is still with us. It was gratifying to also hear the support, respect and love given to Brendan as the only one of  his 20-man hot shot crew to return from the Yarnell Hill Fire alive. A fact seen as a blessing but one that will undoubtedly bring him both blessing and sorrow throughout his lifetime.

 Weeks brfore their lives were taken on Yarnell Hill, the Granite Mountain Hot Shots were battling the Doce fire. The Doce was a big fire whose smoke could be seen with great intensity 50 miles away in Lake Montezuma.

In recent years I've seen and heard comments that there are no more heroes for youngsters to look up to.

Well, rest easy - we now have The Granite Mountain Hot Shots, all 20 of them, and the rest of their firefighting brotherhood.

Granite Mountain Hot Shots crew vehicle in Sunday's procession.