By David J. Novak
After two weeks of cold trailing, hose laying up 60-degree slopes and setting fire line, our mainly uneventful wildland firefighting assignment was ending at the Willamette National Forest in Oregon in August 2008.
With a day remaining before firefighting crews from Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota would board the firefighter jet back to the Midwest, our 20-person crew boss set up a tour of a hotshot training facility, followed by a visit to the Wildland Firefighters Monument in Prineville.
The hotshot facility’s weight training room held every conceivable piece of workout equipment known to man. Parachute packs filled one wall. Physical readiness oozed from ceiling to floor — each person’s gear stowed away in individual secured locker cages. Their plane, with its Spartan interior and always full of fuel, stood ready at a moment’s notice.
The hotshots looked just like us (well, almost all of us). Mostly 20-somethings, on assignment they bring what they need and nothing more into the most remote back country areas imaginable. You have to want to serve as a hotshot — no nine to five, live with hot and cold and wet and dry, say what you mean, be nice.
Prineville — modest by the standards of other memorials and monuments — is privately funded by some of the parents of 14 hotshots who died on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain in 1994. One by one, each of us stopped talking as we entered this sacred space. Bio-plaques again revealed mostly the young, bright eyes, energetic, hopeful, paying it forward. We took pictures here, lots of them. Who knows when would we return to Prineville?
A local restaurant, when they saw our bus of firefighters, opened up a space usually reserved for groups, as we entered. It was unnerving and humbling when the patrons quieted down, some stood up, moms leaned over their kids, said something, pointed at us.
Hotshot firefighter crews can’t live with excuses. The elite, the best of the best, they count on each other’s situational awareness — am I the right person in the right place with the right equipment, doing the right thing in the right way with the right people? While these questions apply to just about everything we do every day, ratchet it up by a factor of 10 when all you have is each other, no infrastructure, no one to call, no one to send it up to or down to, no “undo” keys to stop the wall of flames coming faster than legs can run, the Internet won’t dig line.
And then along comes Yarnell, enshrined for all the wrong reasons. The tragic, horrific deaths of 19 Arizona crew members generates many more questions than answers. What was the spot weather forecast for their location? Were they in the process of cutting escape routes and safety zones when they were overrun? Did any of the 19 have an inkling, a sense that something wasn’t right and did they say something? The incident’s 72-hour preliminary report says little we don’t already know. It will be fleshed out later.
Let’s not let their deaths be in vain. A national discussion finally can begin on what really needs to be protected from fire and what can be left to burn itself out. Perhaps develop a planned nationwide burning schedule to burn high fuel-load areas as a preventive, ecological, land health process rather than a reactive response to a crisis.
What can landowners/homeowners do to proactively protect their properties from wildfire? How can budgets and jurisdictions be adjusted so prescribed controlled burn funding increases on public and private lands?
Each year hundreds and sometimes thousands of wildland firefighters return home without incident. Yarnell will teach us a lot. Let’s roll up our sleeves and apply the lessons learned.
David J. Novak, longtime Cedar Rapids resident and a 2002 Freedom Festival Hero, operates a land-restoration business. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org