I remember that day. Of course, I remember that day. Every wildland firefighter (current or former) has a flash-bulb memory to mark that point in time.
I was rappelling the fire season of 2013 and my husband was on a hotshot crew. By some freak miracle, we actually had a day off together and met up with a group of other firefighters (also on days off) to play volleyball and have a BBQ. It was all very Top Gun, complete with high-fives and beer clinking until the Supt. of the hotshot crew checked his phone.
He cussed in just such a way that everyone froze dead in their tracks; something was really wrong. We all stood staring in his direction as he looked up and uttered the words, “We lost 19.”
Silence. Stone cold silence.
I imagine that upon hearing the news of 19 gone, firefighters across America made the universal assumption that it was a hotshot crew who’d lost all but 1 person, which was in fact, the reality here.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots lost everyone that day on the Yarnell Hill fire with the exception of their guy who was the lookout. A lookout (for non-fire folks) is chosen daily to sit in a vantage point where they can “lookout” for the rest of the crew to alert them of fire danger that they may not be able to see from their location.
I don’t really remember what happened after we heard the news; time and space seemed to disappear.
I do remember very clearly, however, that I didn’t sleep that night and neither did my husband. We both tossed and turned amidst long stretches of silence before one of us would utter something like, “I can’t believe this”. It was so profoundly heart-wrenching that words were completely failing.
The following morning I began my final assignment as a crewboss trainee with a local initial attack hand crew. About half of the crewmembers were brand new to fire and I could see in their eyes that they couldn’t grasp how profound these losses were. They hadn’t yet formed their crew cohesion; they hadn’t yet spent several years on a hotshot crew in order to know and understand the deep level of camaraderie that develops throughout the fire season.
They just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that us “seasoned” fire folks were walking around like sleepless zombies running through every single possible scenario that would end with 19 of our folks dying in a burn-over.
They didn’t get it.
Our families and non-fire friends conveyed their condolences, professed gratitude that we were okay, and thanked us for our service. They also expressed how awful it must be to meet your end in such a way; they didn’t get it either, none of them got it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
They didn’t get that although the losses were absolutely catastrophic our minds and hearts were focused on the survivor. To be the survivor and lose your entire crew? Getting back to the crew rigs at the end of that day and being the only person left? Getting back to the base and seeing a parking lot full of vehicles from each friend you lost while yours is the only one that pulls out to drive home? Losing every single inside joke that you had with 19 people? Losing every smile and laugh?
In this line of work dying together isn’t the worst tragedy, surviving alone most certainly is.
And so what about this movie Only the Brave?
I’m certain each firefighter has their own opinion and everyone is certainly entitled to disagree about this topic because it’s incredibly touchy. Something to understand first off is that wildland firefighters sleep in the dirt on hillsides in the middle of nowhere, we are generally invisible to the general public on any given day, until now, that is.
This is my opinion, and mine alone so feel free to disagree.
I choose to abstain.
I’ve heard the conversations amongst firefighters go back and forth about how the film could either positively shed light on this profession and help the general public to better understand our culture, or that our profession will be completely misconstrued by Hollywood and the public will forever make assumptions about what it is we actually do, which could end up being dangerous in the long run. Can they really do hotshots justice on the big screen? I can relate to both sides of this debate and unfortunately, none of us has any control over that, we can only hope for the best. Of course, now that the film is out people can go and see for themselves whether our culture has been appropriately depicted. Except for those of us choosing to abstain.
I say choose, but it’s not really a choice for me, and this is why:
These were our people
This is not the typical fictional firefighter drama like Ladder 49 where characters are created to swoon over as they heroically perish in the flames, this is real life, and these were real people. These people are missed by those who loved them and they’ve left a crater-sized hole in the firefighting community. We lose firefighters every single year, but 19 at once? It’s too much.
I, like most people who’ve been a career-wildland firefighter, have suffered the loss of people within my circle. Living these things first hand is surreal and yet oppressively heartbreaking, which means I have no space available for a harrowing depiction of an event that I already carry with me. There is just no way I can sit down in a surround sound movie theater to watch the unfolding of that day’s events. It’s not entertaining; it shouldn’t be entertaining. This is the Schindler’s List of firefighting movies in my mind. It is a film about truly awful events being retold because it’s important, and it matters.
I have accidentally been subjected to snippets of the movie trailer and frantically turned it off because I can feel the tide of unease and stress surge through my body from just 3 seconds of footage; this film is not for me. But that’s not to say that it isn’t for others. For others it may be closure, it may be an honoring, it may be gratitude.
It’s called the fire family for a reason. It’s a large network of people strewn across the country and yet it is an incredibly small, tight-knit community. Every loss matters, every loss hurts, every loss is felt. But then there is the other side. Our families. The people we come home to after being gone for stretches of 14-21 days consistently for 6 months, the people we call on the phone who automatically ask, “where are you?” because you’re never in the same place, the people who love us despite our love for this insane job, our loved ones.
When you’re doing this job you don’t ever allow space for the thought that you may not come home, but they do. They worry about it but don’t tell us. It’s the phone call no person ever wants to receive, it’s the knock at the front door that leaves them in a collapsed heap on the ground. It’s having to share their personal grief on the public stage along with the entire nation because for some reason you’ve been deemed a hero.
It’s too much.
It’s 19 gone and hundreds of friends and family members whose lives were exploded.
It’s 19 gone and thousands of firefighters carrying the weight in their hearts.
It’s too much.
Of course, I remember that day…