In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew in the Yarnell Fire near Prescott, Ariz., the most difficult question to answer may be this one: Why did it happen at all?
There is no questioning their courage, or of their degree of training. Like smoke jumpers, the interagency Hotshot crews see themselves as an elite fraternity (though more and more women are joining up). They pride themselves on their élan, their professionalism, their preparation, and their deep bond. They are prepared to travel around the country, spending weeks in the wilderness fighting fires, often without relief. When I spent some time with an Incident Management team last summer in Montana, I met teams of Hotshots who had come from as far away as Pennsylvania. Many of these young firefighters sign on for economic need -- a reality during a time of chronic high unemployment nationally -- but it will will barely pay the bills. Hotshots earn something like $13 an hour -- though their paychecks grow during the fire season.
But what were the Granite Mountain Hotshots defending? Certainly not the lives of citizens who had already been alerted and evacuated.
They were defending properties -- expensive suburban homes built in the urban-wilderness interface that are no more secure than homes built on stilts along the seashore at Cape Hatteras, NC. I know because I am one of them, having built a vulnerable log home in a Montana forest a dozen years ago. I would never do it again, nor should I be allowed to. As long as we continue to let homes to be constructed in these fire-prone areas, we will be continuing to place these young men and women at risk. They lost their lives became they were doing the job they had been trained for. They died because we asked them to defend the indefensible.