Young men and fire: We owe them more than cheap sentiment
Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened... — Norman Maclean
Smokejumpers and other wildfire-fighters call them "shake and bakes," the portable shelters they carry. These cocoons of foil and fiberglas offer the firefighters at best a 50-percent chance and are deployed as a last resort, as when the wind shifts and the living devil of fire traps and turns on them. The hope is that the fire will pass over quickly. Otherwise, "the only thing your shake and bake will do is allow you to have an open-casket funeral,” one crew supervisor told Wired. Such dark humor is a necessary component of dangerous, sometimes deadly jobs. The Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots team reportedly deployed its shake-and-bakes Sunday in a conflagration at Yarnell, amid triple-digit temperatures and high winds. Nineteen died. As I write, the fire is at zero containment.
This is the deadliest event for wildfire-fighters in modern history. Deadlier than Colorado's South Canyon fire in 1994 on Storm King Mountain. Deadlier than the 1949 Mann Gulch blaze in Montana, which inspired Norman Maclean's classic study, Young Men and Fire, a book both elegiac and forensically definitive.
Here is what I don't want: Cheap sentimentalizing and cynical religiosity from politicians who are otherwise hostile to public employees, adequate government budgets and sensible land-use policies. The ones who use public pensions and unions as evil hand-puppets to distract citizens from the screwing they are getting from the plutocrats. The tax cutters and climate-change "deniers." Please spare me your sudden compassion for public servants and first responders. Spare me your flags and "USA! USA!" and endless evocation of "heroes" if this is mere denial and lazy thinking. Look: I get the shock and grief. I used to be a first responder myself, cross-trained to deploy with forestry fire teams, and more than once was nearly killed (in the city). I know those men are with the Lord and all their tears have been dried, and I pray that their families are given comfort and grace. But I am not going to endlessly tweet this or post it on Facebook. We owe them more. Read on if you agree. This will not be a popular column. It is a necessary one.
This is a developing story and much is not known. Yet this is a time when the media must rise to their duty to serve the public trust. Don't be the media. Be the press. I don't care about the "emotional" statement of Gov. Jan Brewer, much less the self-serving bleats of assorted members of the Kookocracy. I understand the fire chief asking that we "respect the investigation...Please don't pry..." But I also pray that news organizations somewhere are unleashing their top investigative reporters. Prying will be necessary, but not the sleazy television info-tainment of jamming microphones in the faces of the grieving. We need serious journalism.
It is not "too soon."
Reporters will need to learn the arcane specialty of this kind of firefighting, part science but also part deadly art. They should be reading up on both the Mann Gulch and South Canyon fires. Learning how something should work right, and how it can go wrong, will be essential to understanding what happened, recommending reforms if necessary and holding those in power to account. Speaking of which: What has been the budget history for fighting wildfires; is it adequate, keeping up with population, building, etc. And please name names of those in the Legislature and elsewhere who have opposed the necessary resources.
It is not too soon to explain how exurban sprawl has not only profaned rural Arizona but also put houses and entire subdivisions in dangerous fire zones. The interface between the built environment and the wilderness has been blurring for more than two decades. This as drought, the bark beetle infestation and climate change have turned the forests of Arizona into calamities awaiting a match or lightning strike. Population has grown enormously, and in rural Arizona most of the increases have come outside the footprints of the older towns, most of which were more sheltered from forest fires. Especially after the defeat of Prop. 200 at the turn of the century, which would have imposed modest growth boundaries, a fearful and greed-mad Real Estate Industrial Complex went on a wild bender of building across the state, including in the fire zones. Thousands of Phoenicians flee the summer to their "cabins" in the High Country, often just tract houses in subdivisions, heedless of the risk. Shadowy and often corrupt land swaps were snuck through Congress to turn pieces of the National Forests — the people's resources — over to developers for private gain. What remains a wild place is getting more dangerous. And tax dollars must be spent fighting fires that are a natural part of the forest because they are so much more likely to endanger property that didn't exist 40 years ago.
I remember Yarnell circa 1970. It was a wide spot in the road with a gas station and a little roadside park full of religious statues. Pinons and boulders surrounded it. So did gulches and hillsides that even a Boy Scout knew were lethal avenues for fire. That road was one of the most harrowing highways in the west, a narrow band of asphalt with few guardrails and deep dropoffs clinging to Yarnell Hill. Few people braved the highway, but there were few people overall. All of Yavapai County held about 36,700, one third living in the county seat of Prescott (and I mean in Prescott). Towns were compact and, except for the Mountain Club south of Prescott, few houses were in the pines. Those that were happened to be real cabins. This compactness was fortified by the fact that the towns were surrounded by National Forests. The vast ponderosa pine and pinon stands of the High Country were enjoying relatively wet years. One did not go into the wild without proper woodsman skills, tools and water. One was fanatical about ensuring camp fires were out (dowse, stir, dowse, cover with dirt, stir, etc.).
In the new Arizona, people wander the wilderness with the obliviousness of Valinda Jo Elliott, who, equipped with sandals, cigarettes, lighter and a towel ignited the worst fire in state history. In 2012, the county's population was nearly 213,000. The old Yarnell Hill highway has been widened, guard-railed and re-engineered for the standard 85-mile-per-hour automobile traveling speed. Google Earth shows a Yarnell that is larger, spread out and including at least two substantial curvilinear subdivisions that appears to lie on the kind of topography that fires love. These subdivisions, often the result of land-swap hustles, are classic examples of externalities not being priced in, everything from the cost of fire fighting, highways and other infrastructure to the greenhouse gases emitted by increased driving. One huge externality is the danger of fire. And, of course, much of the Western forest is facing extinction from climate change, drought and bark beetles.
It will be essential to scrutinize the skill level of the crew (were they really "elite" by the gold standards of training) and if mistakes were made that resulted in being trapped. The official investigation must be subjected to skepticism and scrutiny by independent experts. Mistakes were made in both South Canyon and Mann Gulch. This will be painful but necessary. If the press is culpable in a cover-up, it will be a criminal act. We must fight the American tendency to "move on," as has happened with the Newtown massacre and the Skagit River (and Minneapolis) bridge collapse. And the Giffords shooting.
There is the larger issue of sustainability in a state with too many people, in the worst possible building patterns, facing climate change. It is not too soon. It is very late. Unless these issues are discussed seriously and some intelligent responses made, then the butcher's bill for fire fatalities will keep growing.
This commentary was originally posted on Rogue Columnist.
Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.