OPINION – Mother Nature can be cruel and unforgiving.
We learned that again Sunday night with the jaw-dropping news that 19 members of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting crew based in Prescott, Ariz., died while fighting a wildly out-of-control blaze in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
The fire, started by a lightning strike, was raging explosively, accelerating to a 13-square-mile area when the crack team was overtaken. Only one man, who was moving the truck at the time, escaped death.
It was the largest single loss of wildland firefighters in 80 years.
Years ago, while working out of the Cedar City office for the local newspaper, we were preparing for the fire season.
I attended a training session with a group of state and local wildland firefighters and saw the incredible power of these fiery beasts that rage through our countryside.
I learned how quickly a wildland fire can grow, how unpredictable they can be, how they can create their own mini-climate to the point of forming a fire tornado within the blaze.
I looked around the room at a group of firefighters who were razor fit. They were strong, young, brave.
We, of course, were reminded of the bravery of these men and women the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when firefighters from and around New York City raced up the World Trade Center to rescue as many people as they could from the doomed building. Most did not make it out alive.
Our grief today is as overwhelming as our grief on that tragic day.
During my many years of working in the news business, I have never met a firefighter I did not like, respect, and worry about every time the alarm tolled.
Cops give you tickets, cops put people in jail, cops carry a variety of weapons.
Firefighters? They rescue kittens from trees, unstick small children from improbable traps, rescue elderly women and kids from burning buildings.
I’ve covered a few fires in my time.
There was a horrible house fire once that occurred in the dead of winter.
It was a cold, blustery day and the smell of the burning house was acrid, heavy. The firefighters fought valiantly to douse the flames because they knew there was an elderly man asleep in one of the bedrooms.
As they fought to knock down the inferno, two brave volunteer firefighters went into the blaze to try to rescue the man, but to no avail. He had already expired.
They were heartbroken, even though it was clear that the man had died before they even got the call.
I was traveling from Cedar City to St. George for a meeting one day when, just south of New Harmony, I saw a fire raging on the west side of Interstate 15. A hot muffler had come off of an older car and slid into the tall weeds, sparking the fire.
I hooked up with our photographer and we followed one of the fire trucks into the blaze, stopping at a safe distance to observe and report.
I was about ready to call it a day the afternoon before Independence Day one year when a call came over the scanner that there was a fire west of Cedar City. A boy of about 13 was playing with some legally purchased fireworks and had accidentally ignited the cheatgrass out in county land that quickly blew up into a fairly decent-sized blaze that threatened several homes. I hitched a ride with the fire chief, and we arrived to see an Iron County Sheriff’s Deputy, who had previously served as a member of the volunteer fire department, fighting valiantly to save a house. The flames were scorching and warping the siding on the structure when we arrived, but the house was spared, thanks to the efforts of Deputy Jody Edwards.
And, when I lived in Enoch, an alfalfa field on one side of my house, a sprawling open field out back, a fire broke out in the field. As I awaited the arrival of the crew, the fire started moving toward my home. I stood out back with a garden hose, trying to keep the perimeter wet, but it was soon evident that the 25-foot wall of flames was moving too hot and rapidly. Thankfully, there was a wind shift and it blew the fire in another direction.
When the trucks arrived, I hopped aboard the lead truck because I knew the field had hidden drop-offs and jagged dips that could endanger the crew. I had ridden horses back there often enough to know the safest routes.
We drove right into the heart of the fire and stopped. I got out to lend another set of hands as the crew fought the 25-acre blaze. The ground was hot beneath my feet, the heat almost unbearable, and we were all choked by smoke. Even as the surface fire was extinguished, there were many places where the flames had ignited the roots beneath the ground. It was weird to see holes in the ground with smoke and flame coming out after the wall of flame was extinguished.
I’ve seen the courage, the grace under pressure, the calm in the heart of madness as these brave men and women risk their lives to protect the lives and property of others.
I’ve seen their anguish when they did their best, but Mother Nature was just too tough and took a life, a home.
So I am filled with sadness at the thought of these 19 courageous men we lost Sunday night.
These are the real heroes of our day, not some manufactured cinematic star or politician or greedy business mogul standing in the spotlight for 15 minutes.
And, our heart aches.
No bad days!
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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