In the summer of 2013, 19 Arizona firefighters lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. Now, New York Times Phoenix bureau chief Fernanda Santos has written a book about the men from the Granite Mountain hotshot crew who lost their lives in that blaze. Santos will discuss her book, “The Fire Line.”
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Ted Simons: Three years ago this summer, 19 Arizona firefighters lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill fire, one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. A new book titled "The Fire Line" focuses on how those who lost their lives lived their lives and what happened on that late afternoon in June 2013. Joining us is New York times bureau chief Fernanda Santos. Good to you have here.
Fernanda Santos: Good to be here.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about this now, who were the Granite Mountain hotshots?
Fernanda Santos: They were kids by and large, most of them were in their 20s, 14 of the 19 were still in their 20s. Three of them had pregnant women at home. They loved to hike, kayak, jog, do things outdoors. And most of all they loved the job they did. They were one of those guys who love to work together and had a great time fighting fires in the wild.
Ted Simons: And as we're seeing them now, why were they doing this line of work? Sense of adventure? Camaraderie?
Fernanda Santos: I think a little bit of both. There was a sense of adventure for a lot of them. It was an opportunity to see different parts of the country. That was crew as all hotshot crews do, that travel across the United States, mostly in the west. You know, they got paid to see places that most of us never get to see, sleep out under the stars. They enjoy that.
Ted Simons: For some of these guys the discipline was a big factor, wasn't it?
Fernanda Santos: Uh-huh, yes. Of course it's a job that has a lot of fun times but also when it comes time to go and fight fire you have to work together, you have to follow rules. You have to perform your role so other people can do their job well. So there were men on the crew to whom the job provided a chance at redemption, salvation almost.
Ted Simons: And as far as some were full time, some part time, how did that work? Contract workers?
Fernanda Santos: In general they work based on a season a fire season that starts roughly around mid April and goes around through mid October. So the ones who were full time were six on Granite Mountain, the remaining were hired for that fire season. Because it was city Fire Department some of them stayed on to work during the winter.
Ted Simons: We'll get to that aspect in a minute. That was very important part of benefits and the post-mortem, if you will, on this whole event. Describe the Yarnell Hill fire area.
Fernanda Santos: That area had not burned in more than 40 years. It was full of brush, very, very dry. The last measurable rain they had had in Yarnell was in April and this fires June 30th. Several months where not a drop of rain fell from the sky. It was overgrown. There was also a lot of brush in the town. It's one of those tiny Arizona towns in the middle of nowhere and a lot of people kind of liked to have the brush around them, a natural curtain of privacy. Which ended up being what caused a lot of the homes in the town to burn.
Ted Simons: How did this fire start?
Fernanda Santos: This fire started just like a lot of fires in Arizona during the season, from a lightning strike. Even though there's rain falling the rain evaporates before it hits the ground. But the lightning of course makes contact. It was like a match dropped in kindling. I started on the top of a mountain. It seems to be a relatively small fire and of course got out of control.
Ted Simons: And in the book you write, initial reports were it wasn't much of a fire but it was persistent.
Fernanda Santos: Exactly. And that's the tricky thing about fire. It's one of those enemies that's cunning. It's always sort of trying outsmart you in some ways. It's almost a living thing. It's the only of the natural elements that we fight. We don't fight hurricanes and tsunamis, we run from them. We fight fire.
Ted Simons: Natural disasters, you experience and survive some, you fight fires, do your best to fight those.
Fernanda Santos: Exactly.
Ted Simons: With that in mind, it was first fought by prison crews. That was the first line of defense.
Fernanda Santos: And it's a very common thing in the west. California has a huge inmate program and Arizona has several fire crews. The crew from the Lewis Prison in Buckeye was the first to show up. About six men eventually made their way up to the mountain by helicopter and tried to put out this fire. They just couldn't keep it under control.
Ted Simons: Sounds like some folks misjudged this fire early on. Judging from your book it sounds like some folks misjudged it.
Fernanda Santos: Itself one of those things you can see in Fernanda Santos: hindsight, there were decisions that maybe should have been made differently. It's very hard when something is move so quickly and evolving and changing to say whether or not they made a good or a bad call. But yes, it was a fire that surprised a lot of people.
Ted Simons: And on June 30th, a two-acre fire got to be 100 acres by 7:30 the night before. Here comes the hotshots. Was it 12 straight days without a break?
Fernanda Santos: That's how they do their job. The last day they were allowed to work, and given they were so close to Prescott, their home base, they probably thought, let's go out there, not a huge deal, it's on our backyard. We'll put it out and come back home and sleep with our wives and children at night.
Ted Simons: Here come the hotshots. I wanted to talk about a couple in particular. Eric Marsh and Amanda Marsh, we have a photo of them together.
Fernanda Santos: He was the man who set the rules, the leader, created a character for this crew. A crew of second-chancers. Eric was a recovering alcoholic. He was a remarkable man who basically rebuilt his life and was able to guide a lot of men struggling into becoming not only good firefighters but good men. He helped kids. Brendan McDonough was a survivor he helped. He said I went through it, I got over it, you can do it, too.
Ted Simons: Who was Jesse Steed?
Fernanda Santos: The captain, the second in command. I call him the beardless Paul Bunyan. He was a big, handsome man who one time pushed a tree falling his way the opposite direction. A father of two young children, hugged the hotshots and said, I love you, brother. Eric and Jesse complemented each other.
Ted Simons: These two in control, 3:26 in the afternoon, a storm closing in from the North. There already was a storm in the South. Did they combine? Did they circle? What happened?
Fernanda Santos: The fire was moving North and there was a storm coming from the North so. They were -- they collided. What the storm d the winds did, was literally turn the flames in a 180-degree turn. Some people drew a horseshoe in the air. They came back the opposite direction towards the crew, which was to the South of the fire.
Ted Simons: And the crew was eventually working this. Sounds like they went to a blacked out area that previously burned, smart thing to do, correct?
Fernanda Santos: Generally the safest place in a wildfire.
Ted Simons: And you're right, 40 to 50 miles per hour downdrafts with this storm, rapidly shifting wind. The fire gained strength with every shift. They are up in this blackened area. They didn't stay in the blackened area. Why?
Fernanda Santos: You know, I think they are the only ones who know the answer. What I can say is that wildland firefighters don't make decisions predicated on the possibility of death. So my conclusion and knowing these guys, their families, writing this book, was that whatever thought process they went through was one that justified them leaving the safety of the black, going down this canyon.
Ted Simons: And we're seeing them there, they are safe here.
Fernanda Santos: They have a ranch ahead of them, we can see the ranch here, but there was a ranch there that survived this fire. The thought is, the thinking is they went down this canyon and were going towards that ranch presumably to help in the town of Yarnell there was going to be threatened by the fire. All of those calculations proved to be wrong.
Ted Simons: Right. I think we have another photograph here of one of the hotshots. Basically not long before they got into this canyon.
Fernanda Santos: This is Andrew ashcraft.
Ted Simons: Moments later they are trapped by this thing. Everyone wants to find out what happened and they want to know how to keep something from -- like that from happening again. What do we learn from this? What do we know? What can we change?
Fernanda Santos: There was not one single thing that went wrong and caused these men to die. There were problems with communication, and problems with an overreliance on people who had been working together for a long time, knew fire very well. An overreliance that they would do the job well without the trust but verify thing we have in journalism, they have a similar thing with fire. They are thinking they are making the right call. If we're making the right call but I don't know what kind of decision you're making maybe our decision resource not matching. That's sort of what happened there. One can look back to the crewmate going down the mountain and say, it was horribly wrong. But then these guys wanted to go back home. They were not on a suicide mission. It's a horrible tragedy that happened and whatever decision they made, I'm convinced they thought it was the right thing to do.
Ted Simons: Do we know whether or not Marsh gave the order to go back there?
Fernanda Santos: Well, the thing is that there was some discussion about this order that may or may not have been given. But ultimately the crew had to have agreed, either because the leadership agreed and the others followed, most likely that's how it goes, or because everybody thought that was the way to go. But really, what to me was the most important part of the story wasn't so much that who is to basement but it was the final moment of these men. They were found in a space of about 20 feet by 30 feet. These are big guys, ambitious guys, strong, well-trained. Why didn't they run? That was the question I wanted to answer. I felt to answer this question I had to get to know all of them. I think 8 much more interesting and universal story when you talk about the human aspects of fire. Both from the enduring side of things and also the critical and problematic side of things. I think the book has both.
Ted Simons: And the book also mentions what happens afterwards, families hear from the news media, and you go into great detail on how each family heard about it. Six full-time with Prescott, 13 were not. The benefits fight got pretty rough, didn't it?
Fernanda Santos: It did. These guys who were part time or some of them were classified as temporary full time -- they worked the fire season under one contract and then that contract would end, and then they would be hired back under a different contract to work the winter, where they would chip brush and do maintenance work and maintain so that in case of fire it doesn't become a huge fire. It's very important work they do. We never think 19 are going die. But when they did, it shows how the system separates people. It was not just the crew, the Granite Mountain hotshots, federal workers work under the same system. There are full time and seasonal members. Other benefits, the families don't get it. Usually a wildland fire fighting family goes through severe difficulties after a loved one dies.
Ted Simons: You're going to go to Changing Hands in Phoenix for a book signing.
Fernanda Santos: Yes.
Ted Simons: Did working on this book change you?
Fernanda Santos: It changed me profoundly. There's no such thing as an individual victory. Everything we do, we do together.
Ted Simons: Sounds like you got very involved in the families and these lives, and very involved in the telling of the story. Congratulations on this book, great job.
Fernanda Santos: Thank you, thank you for having me.
Ted Simons: And Thursday on "Arizona Horizon" we'll find out about proposition 124, which would reform the state's public safety pension system. And we'll get an update on Arizona's tourism industry from the head of the state's tourism office at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." If you want to watch tonight's show again, maybe see a previous program or figure out what we've got in store for the future, check us out, azpbs.org/horizon, that's azpbs.org/horizon. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening. Captioning Performed By LNS Captioning www.LNScaptioning.com
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Fernanda Santos:New York Times Phoenix Bureau Chief