Few forces of nature are as terrifying and unpredictable as forest fires, particularly those in America’s arid West and Southwest. Depending on size, such a fire can create its own shifting weather patterns, each posing a new danger, a different path of destruction. That’s what happened in Yarnell, Arizona, on June 30, 2013, when 19 of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighting team were burned to death in a blaze sparked by lightning.
A former firefighter himself, Kyle Dickman first focuses on the history of the Granite Mountain unit and then delves into the background and personalities of its individual members, each of whom had to undergo grueling physical training and considerable hazing to win a place on the team. Most of the men were in their 20s, often at loose ends professionally but caught up in the gung-ho spirit of their jobs. Dickman recounts in such detail their love affairs, marriages, divorces, children, aspirations and resentments that by the time they die, the reader is quite likely to feel a sense of personal loss. Dickman varies his account by quoting many of the text messages the doomed Hotshots sent to and received from their loved ones during the final hours.
The most vivid parts of his reporting, however, are his close-ups of the fire as it invades the town of Yarnell. “Bob [a 94-year-old resident fleeing with his 89-year-old wife] couldn’t see through the smoke. He kept bumping into the trees and brush on the sides of their driveway. Then he put the truck’s right wheel into a ditch. The tire exploded. Around them, dozens of propane tanks sent columns of flames shooting into the air like fires off an oil derrick.”
Left unanswered, Dickman acknowledges, is the haunting question of why the 19 men left a zone of relative safety to descend into the cauldron that took their lives.