18 firefighters working the Yarnell Hill Fire confirmed dead. Under these circumstances most people will say “I can’t imagine what that must be like to die that way.” You know what you would be right. You can’t imagine what that must have been like, but I can so I’ll try and take you through what their day might have been like.
Fighting the blaze were 19 firefighters with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based out of Prescott. The group became the first city-based hotshot crew in the nation back in 2008.
Their day would have started early. A good breakfast in camp and then a briefing with command. They would have listened intently especially to what the weather forecast was going to be. They would have checked all their gear, water, tools, snacks, spare gloves, maybe socks, and they would have shared a smile with each other as they prepared to leave. The smile communicates to each and everyone a single thought, we get paid for doing this.
We get paid to have this much fun. See the normal person doesn’t get that we love this stuff; we can’t wait to get at it. We love the weight of our pack, the weight of our equipment belt and the way we have everything set up just so. Shake and bake on your hip next to the canteen maybe, we all have our own setup; the way we like our stuff, it’s very personal.
They then got on some kind of transport to the jumping off point, the starting point of the day. There they would have had another meeting, a crew meeting. The crew boss would lay out the plan for the day, where they were going and what their goal was for the day and point out safe zones and anchor points that could be identified beforehand.
Then the walk in, a nice straight line one after the other. The air would be heavy with smoke and the morning heat would only be showing a small amount of what was to come. The first trickle of sweat would have already run down your back. The line is quite a lot of the time, just the sounds of breathing and rocks crushing under your well worn Danners or Thorogoods as you walk.
You wonder what the day will hold, you know a small town nearby has been evacuated and that your main goal is going to be putting some line between that town and the fire. Try and save the homes of strangers so that they will have something to return to. Then you reach your first anchor point, an anchor point is a safe place to start and a safe place for retreat if needed.
The Crew Boss gives the first commands and direction of attack and you go to work. He may break the team up into squads of 4 or 5 firefighters working hand tools, combined with a few Sawyers and Swampers. The Boss will also set up Lookouts for every squad and a Squad Boss. The Lookout is generally an experienced firefighter and they have one job, Safety, they watch the weather and the fire at all times. They hold the lives of the others in their hands.
If you are on a hand tool you will walk along at a steady pace and take one swing or swipe at the ground with either your shovel, Pulaski or McCloud as you go. Your goal is to clear the ground of all flammable material down to mineral soil. By now you don’t really get sore anymore your muscles have become accustomed to the work, you just walk along taking your bite out of the ground as you go.
You move as a team and act as a team, safety is always paramount on every ones minds. As you work along the line if you are lucky and the resources exist you will have air support slurry tankers and helicopters with bambi buckets dropping for you, they are also another set of eyes to watch the fire.
So what happened today? I can only guess based on experience and what is in the news. The weather had to have played a huge roll as well as terrain and maybe communications. What I have heard is that the firefighters deployed their survival shelters or as we know them our shake and bakes.
These are a small pup tent device that is covered in reflective aluminum. These are an absolute last form of defense where no other choice exists. Depending on the amount of time they had to deploy them, they would have quickly tried to clear the ground under their feet down to soil if possible. Then pulled their shelters, it is folded up in a very compact and tight package and a bit hard to work with especially with gloves on and your heart racing.
If you are pulling this thing out, your life hangs in the balance and time is critical. First, you have to rip it from its container, and then flap it like a trash bag to fill it with air. All the while the heat is exploding around you, the air is being pulled away from you and in to the fire. The noise and sounds would be incredible at this point, the fire roars like a combination of wild beast and freight train. It becomes hard to communicate each other and smoke can obscure your vision to the point you can’t even see other. You are in a race by yourself against the beast. You have to get your feet jammed into the lower corners and make sure that a little elastic strap is over your boot. Then reach up with your hands get them under the straps and get a good hold, now you fall face first to the ground. You want your feet pointed at the fire as they can take more heat than your gloved hands.
You want to trap as much air under the tent as possible for two reasons, one, the more the tent is puffed up with air the farther it is away from touching you. Second, it may be holding your only air supply for the next few minutes.
Then you wait, you may try calling to your friends, but you wait for what may be the last moments of your life. As the fire reaches you, the temperature inside your tent becomes unbearable it skyrockets it begins to steal your air you can’t breath. The heat is so incredible that the thought comes to you, “I can’t hold on.” The fire now rips at your tent trying to suck it off you; it pulls away as if a couple of hungry bears are tearing at it.
Your eyes burn and your lungs refuse to take in any of the superheated air swirling around you now. Your own sweat begins to vaporize and burn your skin as it turns to steam. You begin to suffocate and then panic. No matter how much training you have had, no matter how many times you have run through this drill in practice your fear may over come you, but more than likely what happens is finally your hands are burning so badly you let go or simply can’t feel them anymore and the tent is sucked away. Then you are exposed to heat in the range of 1200 degrees, the end comes quickly but not pain free, you burn to death in an instance.
How terrible for the firefighters I am sure God has already welcomed them home. However, the living are left behind, the families, the friends, and the citizens are left to make sense of what has happened. Know this the firefighters did this willingly, they knew the odds and they still took them, because that is what we do, we take informed chances every day. Sometimes you win and get to go home and sometimes you don’t. God bless them.