It was hard to watch the late breaking news on Sunday, June 30, reporting that 19 U.S. Forest Service “hotshots” had been killed in Arizona. It is incomprehensible that so many of the daring young men who make up this elite firefighting force had died in the line of duty.
It doesn’t seem possible because the hotshots and their cohorts, the smoke jumpers, have always seemed indestructible. They are dropped into hellish backcountry, carrying all their gear on their backs. They hike for days on end, fighting fire with hand pumps, operating chainsaws and using a Pulaski to dig trenches and clear deadfall as fires advance. Their youth—the average age of those lost was 27 years old—their physical strength and their courage made a formidable match for any wildfire.
Or so it seemed. But now our nation is mourning the loss of 19 of its finest, the greatest loss of life for firefighters since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
I’m sure the loss hits our local Forest Service personnel especially hard. We’ve had hotshot crews in Cook County, during the Sag Corridor Fire of 1995, the Alpine Lake Fire of 2005, the Famine Lake and Cavity Lake fires of 2006, the 75,851-acre Ham Lake Fire of 2007 and probably many others.
Local resources alone could never extinguish major wildfires—such as the 100,000-acre Pagami Creek Fire of 2011. The hotshots and smoke jumpers and fire management teams are needed. By the time they arrive, our Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fire crews have been pushed to their limits. The arrival of the hotshot crews must be a bit like seeing John Wayne and the Cavalry.
It has always seemed so to me. During a threatening wildfire, I have always been glad to get the daily media updates that report that hundreds of people are working on a fire—including hotshot teams.
I have been glad to see the hotshots and other firefighters around town as smoke darkens the sky. When these courageous folks weren’t on the fire, they were camped out at the high school, buying out all the Gatorade and candy bars at local gas stations and smoking up the library and local Laundromats.
I don’t know if any of the Arizona hotshots worked here in Cook County, but with only 110 hotshot teams in the entire United States, it is likely that our local fire folks have crossed paths with the Arizona firefighters at some point. I can’t imagine their shock and sadness.
My heart goes out to our local Forest Service folks and to all of the fire personnel who are touched by this tragedy. The Granite Mountain Hotshots will never be forgotten.
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But sound aloud the praises, and give the victor-crown
To our noble-hearted Firemen,
who fear not danger’s frown.
Frederic G.W. Fenn, 1878