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After a slow start, Only the Brave rallies to become a solid tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of whom died battling the massive Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

The Hotshots were an elite Prescott, Ariz., crew led by veteran firefighter Eric Marsh, played here by Josh Brolin. This performance ranks among Brolin’s best, as he shows us a passionate man presiding over his crew like a father to his sons.

Marsh takes a risk on Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug-user seeking redemption and a decent living to provide for his newborn daughter. The always-reliable Teller matches Brolin’s acting triumph every step of the way, making both Marsh and McDonough fleshed-out, complicated characters. The two seem right at home with each other onscreen.

Director Joseph Kosinski takes a solid step beyond his prior sci-fi blunders (Oblivion, TRON: Legacy) to deliver a movie that is technically sound and emotionally powerful, if a little hokey and overlong in spots. The movie is never bad, but it does drone on a bit during some of the melodramatic build up. It never goes wrong when the team is on the job and fighting fires; it just gets a little sleepy when folks are sitting around talking or bickering.

We see the team containing numerous fires throughout the film, giving us the sense that these guys were in full command of their trade. Of course, nature is an awesome and awful beast—and when the wind shifts and sends the Yarnell blaze toward the unsuspecting men, you get a true sense of how random and crazy the event was. These guys were the best of the best, and even they couldn’t predict what was going to happen.

Kosinski has assembled a cast that includes Brolin’s True Grit cast mate Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, Marsh’s supervisor. You can’t go wrong with Bridges; he delivers good humor, at one point busts out a guitar, and ultimately provides the movie with a solid emotional punch during the finale. Taylor Kitsch gets some good laughs as troublemaker Christopher MacKenzie; he gripes about handing over his new Vans to trainee Brendan, but winds up becoming his best friend over time.

As Amanda Marsh—Eric’s wife who takes care of injured horses when he’s away—Jennifer Connelly gets a chance to shine. Like Eric, Amanda has had a rough past, and problems bubble to the surface during some of his stop-ins between fires. Connelly does well with material that could seem played out in the hands of others. She adds angst to the mix with Amanda, and it works.

Knowing nothing about the art of firefighting, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this film, but it sure does feel realistic. The Hotshots do controlled burns to protect landscapes, save historic trees and rescue neighborhoods. Additional supporting cast members, like James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed, Marsh’s second in command, give you a sense that the actors did a lot of ride-alongs for their roles.

Even though the fate of the men in the film is well-known, the depiction of the Yarnell Fire still blindsides you. Brolin’s Marsh figures it will be an easily contained fire, with the men home for dinner. Kosinski portrays the shock of the whole situation effectively; the men were working a situation which seemed to be completely under control.

The final sequences in the movie are so well done that you’ll feel kind of bad for groaning during the film’s more lumbering parts. By the time Kosinski shows the real-life firefighters alongside their Hollywood counterparts, the film has become a nice homage to these great, unselfish, all-giving men.

Parts of the country are going through some of the worst fire seasons in modern history. It’s not surprising this film didn’t have a big opening weekend; it’s a subject very close to home and truly painful for many. It’s a movie that will gain an audience over time.

Only the Brave is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

On June 30, 2013, Arizona’s infamous Yarnell Hill Fire overran the Granite Mountain Hotshots, killing 19 firefighters as they crouched beneath their woefully inadequate aluminum shelters.

The tragedy was nearly as mysterious as it was horrific: Minutes earlier, Granite Mountain had been stationed in the secure “black,” already-burned land that couldn’t reignite. Why the hotshots abandoned safety is a question that has spawned two official reports, hundreds of articles and countless Internet-fueled conspiracy theories. Was it incompetent leadership? Hubris? Or a reasonable decision rendered disastrous by a sudden shift in the wind?

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but it’s the best account yet of the Yarnell catastrophe. Dickman, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a former firefighter, is concerned less with how Granite Mountain’s men died than with how they lived. Burning Edge offers an intimate window into the singular culture of hotshots, the men and women who defend America’s public lands with chainsaws, axes and an endless supply of prepackaged meals and chewing tobacco.

Granite Mountain’s members, most of whom are in their 20s, are a study in contradictions: Testosterone-driven in the field and tender at home, hard-drinking and yet eager to join hands and pray “in the soft glow of the dying fire.” We meet Scott Norris, a mentor to younger hotshots who bonds with his girlfriend over their mutual affinity for handguns; Grant McKee, an aspiring paramedic lured by good pay and repulsed by the team’s hazing rituals; and guilt-wracked sole survivor Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a third-year hotshot “with the crew’s longest rap sheet and foulest mouth.” The most complex character is Eric Marsh, the ambitious superintendent who moves his team away from safety and toward the fire’s path—perhaps, Dickman speculates, to impress higher-ups. To some firefighters, Marsh’s mistake was understandable; to others, it was an “egregious and unforgivable error in judgment.”

Still, no one man led the Granite Mountain Nineteen to their deaths. Burning Edge provides a deft synopsis of a century of firefighting malpractice, from the nascent Forest Service stamping out all fires to save valuable timber, to the ascent of the anti-fire mascot Smokey Bear, whose “fame rivaled that of Santa Claus.” By interfering with natural cycles, forest managers permitted brush and saplings to choke meadows, creating a “ladder of fuels” that help low-intensity conflagrations climb into treetops and become mega-fires.

Not until one-third of Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988 did America’s public-land agencies recognize the folly of knee-jerk suppression. Even today, however, firefighters extinguish 98 percent of blazes in their early stages. Though Dickman devotes a few pages to contemporary fire policy, he rarely pulls back to analyze the larger land-use trends that put hotshots in harm’s way, particularly population growth in the wildland-urban interface and landowners who fiercely decry building codes even as they demand that the federal government ride to their rescue. Climate change, which is making the West hotter, drier and more flammable, casts an omnipresent shadow over Burning Edge, but earns little explicit mention in its pages.

In the end, this is a book not about the scientists who study fire, nor the wonks who manage it, but about the grunts who face the consequences. Jesse Steed, GraniteMountain’s captain and an ex-Marine, called hotshotting “the next best thing to the military,” and the parallels are unmistakable: There’s the grueling training, the obsession with equipment, the interminable deployments, the special camaraderie. As Dickman retraces the crew’s final weeks, we eavesdrop on our protagonists in their most private moments: Kevin Woyjeck dancing in the backseat of McKee’s car, Norris slipping away from camp to steal one last shower with his girlfriend, and so on. Knowing the fate that awaits these young men makes their precious happiness almost unbearable; as June 30 draws ever closer, turning the pages starts feeling downright cruel.

When the Granite Mountain hotshots finally reach Yarnell, they’re greeted by “total nonstop chaos.” Three-mile walls of fire roar through the chaparral, and “dozens of propane tanks (send) columns of flames shooting into the air like fires off an oil derrick.” Communications deteriorate as hotshot crews, agencies and commanders tussle for control of radio frequencies. Airplanes and helicopters nearly collide. Granite Mountain, trapped in a canyon, tries desperately to hail air support, which fails to grasp the crew’s predicament until it’s too late.

The Yarnell Hill Fire may have been sparked by lightning, but it was partly a manmade calamity, exacerbated by uncertain hierarchies, miscommunications and breaches in safety protocols. If these 19 deaths accomplished nothing else, perhaps we can use them to improve how the West’s firefighting agencies interact on the line—because more, and bigger, fires are on the way.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It

By Kyle Dickman

Ballantine Books

304 pages, $26

Published in Literature

A modest metal building sits behind a chain-link fence in the industrial quarter of Prescott, Ariz., with only a small sign to identify it: Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.

By now, the story is well known: 19 of 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were fighting to save the town of Yarnell, Ariz., when they were hit by what might best be called a fire hurricane on June 30

Just a week and a half earlier, these men had inserted themselves between hundreds of homes north of Prescott and a ferocious wildfire that swept over the very mountain for which the hotshot crew takes its name. Thanks to their efforts and the help of additional firefighters, ground and aerial equipment, homes and citizens were spared.

Many of us who live in Prescott have had numerous occasions across the years to offer thanks to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as well as to other city, county and federal firefighters. That’s why, when they drive back through town, we line the streets and cheer. We shake their hands when we meet them in local supermarkets. We write letters to the editor in praise of their heroic efforts.

But after all the kudos, we return to our homes, safe and secure, and seldom think about how these men routinely put their lives on the line, placing themselves in jeopardy for our collective well-being.

As investigations continue into how the tragedy occurred, there’s another search that needs to occur: We Westerners need to look into ourselves for honest answers about what we can reasonably expect of our firefighters and what we must expect of ourselves.

We carry a burden of responsibility that needs to be acknowledged and met. As those who live in the Coachella Valley and Idyllwild areas know thanks to the Mountain Fire: We live in arid lands, a characteristic likely to become more pronounced with the onset of climate change effects. Wallace Stegner eloquently expressed the nature of this challenge when he wrote that “adaptation is the covenant that all successful organisms sign with the dry country.”

Living where I do, I have woven into my daily routine some fire-resistant, adaptive actions and hereby offer them up as suggestions for other residents of the region.

First: It’s our job to add less fuel to the (prospective) fire: At home, we’ve pruned lots of vegetation on our property, which meant striking a delicate balance between conserving sufficient native wildflowers and trees for wildlife habitat and trimming trees that overhang the roof or grew too close. We also cleared gutters of fallen leaves and needles and pruned dead branches from surrounding shrubs, all to reduce fuel load on the lot. See www.firewise.org for useful tips.

Second: We packed “fire bags” to be prepared to evacuate. Yes, this is tough psychologically, but crucial to our own and firefighter safety. We filled several suitcases with family photos, necessary meds, lists of contacts and other household contents that we’d need later. We checked to ensure we’re properly insured in the event of a wildfire. We scouted the route of our escape vehicle.

Third: We all need to work to reduce the carbon emissions that worsen drought and increase wildfire severity throughout the West. Some actions are simple, such as installing LED lights, conserving water inside and planting drought-resistant native species outside to reduce water use. We try to drive less, and we do cooperative errands, labor and tool-sharing with our neighbors—all small ways to make a cumulative difference. See the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web page: www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/home.html.

Fourth: We must encourage decision-makers at local and state levels to create disincentives so developers build fewer homes on the edges of national forests and other public lands—in the place called the wildland-urban interface. See “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection,” by Headwaters Economics: headwaterseconomics.org/wildfire/fire-cost-background.

Fifth: We should demand that our congressional representatives restore and increase funding for our wildland firefighters. See, as example, this petition on the White House website: petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/increase-fire-prevention-funding-federal-and-state-wildlands/FDkqzvy2.

Sixth: Find your local or regional headquarters for wildland firefighters and offer a “thank-you” donation for their training or scholarship funds. Ongoing appreciation to the people who risk their lives for us is perhaps as important as expressing grief after a tragedy.

Terril L. Shorb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He teaches community sustainability at Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz.

Published in Community Voices

A good friend of mine who is a wildfire medic was at the airport, en route to his next assignment, when I called to ask him, in that helpless way we do, to be safe, and to see how he was handling the tragic news from Arizona, where 19 hotshots lost their lives on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

He didn't know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally. But on-the-job loss of life hits everyone in the fire community hard. It's a reminder of their own mortality, and of the calculated risks their own fire families take every day.

"On my last fire, the whole division had to run to the safety zone," he told me. Safety zones are clearings firefighters can escape to if fire behavior changes and threatens the welfare of those on the fire line. Such escapes happen "more than people think," he told me. "It's an accepted part of the job. You're just not supposed to die."

His voice was angry, baffled, sad. Like all of us, he was turning over the things that might have gone wrong. "My instinct is that they were overcommitted to those houses," he told me. "We have rules. You're supposed to never put (the value of anything) above your life. Safety is the No. 1 thing. There's no fucking house that's worth it. That town was getting burned over, and those guys went in and did their job and got fucked."

This is just speculation, of course, but it raises an important question. As Outside editor and a former hotshot himself, Kyle Dickman, put it: "In wildland firefighting, as with all firefighting, there’s nothing more important than protecting homes from destruction, but in the past decade, more than 20 million people have moved into the lands that will eventually be threatened by wildfire. Was Granite Mountain’s supervisor, the field general in charge of making calls on the ground, more willing to expose his crew to risk because houses were at stake?"

Thankfully, incidents of mass death by burning are rare, and seem to have become less common over time, despite the fact that fires have grown larger and more intense, and more manhours are annually spent fighting wildfire. A briefing paper posted this winter by the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center reported that since 1995, fire entrapment or burnovers—being overtaken by flames—caused 11 percent of wildland firefighter fatalities. Since 1926, entrapment or burnovers accounted for 38 percent of deaths. (There are flaws to this data, however, because of inconsistent fatality-reporting practices over time, so it's hard to say if there's a true statistical trend.) The chart here shows all such incidents since 1910 when five or more lives were lost to fire itself, as opposed to falling trees or rocks, plane or car crashes, or heart attacks or other medical issues. (Note the large number of fatalities here in California.)

"The one common denominator with burnovers is unpredictability," says Larry Sutton, a U.S. Forest Service risk-management officer with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "The fire did something that you weren’t expecting. (Beyond that), we’ve kind of trained ourselves not to speculate. There’s always more to it than meets the eye. It takes a lot of investigation and a lot of analysis to figure out the whys behind (these incidents)."

A look back at the investigation of the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo.—the last incident of this magnitude, where 14 firefighters died—is instructive, however, as to the probing that should be done into the human factors that contributed to the Yarnell Hill disaster. Rarely can such tragedies be explained by fire behavior alone.

The South Canyon Fire blew up rapidly the afternoon of July 6, 1994, as an arid cold front with winds gusting up to 45 mph moved in, and dry oak ignited. Flames 200 to 300 feet high spread suddenly at up to 18 mph. It was, no doubt, a difficult situation to manage. But a joint Bureau of Land Management-U.S. Forest Service investigation found that inadequate escape routes and safety zones, fire line construction, and the failure to brief hotshots of fuel conditions or weather forecasts were also "direct causes" of the accident.

"The fire behavior on July 6 could have been predicted on the basis of fuels, weather and topography, but fire behavior information was not requested or provided," the report concluded. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration's investigation found that "plain indifference" to employee safety caused the deaths.

We should not assume that the same was true at Yarnell Hill before an investigation is complete. By most accounts, there is a much greater emphasis on safety in firefighting operations today. Sutton says leadership-development programs have been stepped up since then, to improve decision-making on the ground, as has "fatigue management"—that is, keeping close watch of shift and assignment lengths. But if there is any lesson in the past, it is that people always play a role.

Cally Carswell is the assistant editor of High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment