“While oxygen lasts, there are still new things to love, especially if
compassion is a form of love.” —Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire
Mann Gulch, Storm King Mountain, and now, Yarnell Hill. Oh, it was awful to learn about the loss of those 19 brave Hotshot firefighters from Prescott, Arizona. It will be a while before investigators fully understand this tragedy, but the takeaway is that wild fires are erratic and unpredictable. So much so that even the most experienced and elite crews are risking their lives each time they head out to the fire line.
For those looking for some understanding, I highly recommend Young Men and Fire (YM&F), Norman Maclean’s brilliant, wonderfully written account of the Mann Gulch Fire which killed 13 men in 1949. Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It, did not live to see YM&F win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Not only is this a thoroughly researched and fascinating investigative report, but the book is also an eloquent, moving rumination of an aged man facing mortality:
“It was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
By odd coincidence, I was reading Young Men and Fire back in the summer of 1994, when 14 men and women were killed fighting a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. As in Mann Gulch, these firefighters were confronted with flames that suddenly changed direction and began racing uphill towards them. Unlike people (especially those wearing bulky protective suits and carrying heavy gear), fire typically moves faster going uphill than downhill.
Maclean’s son John wrote about this second tragedy in Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire. While it’s not the elegiac masterpiece of YM&F, John Maclean’s book is a compelling, page-turning read in the vein of A Perfect Storm. The younger Maclean shows how several seemingly minor human errors amassed together, leading the firefighting crew into an inescapable deathtrap. The snap of an American flag shifting into northwest wind (as noted by a National Weather Service forecaster) turns out to have ominous portent.
Usually I pass along books,
but this hardcover I’ve kept.
Like those fires, early reports are that the Yarnell Hill fire took a 180-degree change in direction. Indeed the last photo taken by one of the Hotshots does not herald danger, but shows the men atop a ridgeline at a safe distance from the burn.
I’m ready for a reread of both books, as I try to come to terms with yet another group of promising, vibrant young people sacrificed in their prime. Thoughts and prayers of sympathy for their families and for the community of Prescott.
Meanwhile, I feel an immense gratitude and respect for those incredibly brave men and women, heroes, out trying to tame so many wildfires during this drought-ridden summer of record heat.
I think of Norman Maclean’s words, as I salute them:
“It is very important to a lot of people to make unmistakably clear to themselves and to the universe that they love the universe but are not intimidated by it and will not be shaken by it, no matter what it has in store.”
Young Men and Fire, University of Chicago Press
Young Men and Fire (Wikipedia)
The Mann Gulch Fire (Wikipedia)
Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, official site
The Storm King Mountain or South Canyon Fire (Wikipedia)
Loss of 19 Firefighters in Arizona Blaze (CNN)
Last Photo Taken of/by Prescott Hotshots
How You Can Help the Families of the Fallen Prescott Firefighters
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