On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It

On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It

by Kyle Dickman

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On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It by Kyle Dickman

The definitive account of one of the deadliest wildfires in U.S. history, which killed nineteen elite firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and also inspired the major motion picture Only the Brave.
“A tear-jerking classic.”—Outside • Named One of the Best Books of the Year by Men’s Journal
On June 28, 2013, a single bolt of lightning sparked an inferno that devoured more than eight thousand acres in northern Arizona. Twenty elite firefighters—the Granite Mountain Hotshots—walked together into the Yarnell Hill Fire, tools in their hands and emergency fire shelters on their hips. Only one of them walked out.
An award-winning journalist and former wildland firefighter, Kyle Dickman brings to the story a professional’s understanding of how wildfires ignite, how they spread, and how they are fought. He understands hotshots and their culture: the pain and glory of a rough and vital job, the brotherly bonds born of dangerous work. Drawing on dozens of interviews with officials, families of the fallen, and the lone survivor, he describes in vivid detail what it’s like to stand inside a raging fire—and shows how the increased population and decreased water supply of the American West guarantee that many more young men will step into harm’s way in the coming years.

Praise for On the Burning Edge
“Dickman weaves a century of fire-management history into the fully realized stories of the men’s lives—the sweat, the adrenaline, the orange glow of fire within their aluminum shelters, and the chewing gum that hotshot Scott Norris left in the shower before telling his girlfriend, Heather, ‘I’ll take care of it later. I promise.’”Outside
“Dickman offers a riveting account of a dangerous occupation and acts of nature most violent—and those who face both down.”Library Journal

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553392135
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 298,446
File size: 15 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Kyle Dickman is a former editor at Outside magazine and a former member of the firefighting crew known as the Tahoe Hotshots. He spent five seasons fighting wildfires in California. Dickman’s reporting has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife, Turin.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Perfect Profession

Grant McKee parked his aging Dodge Neon by a row of pickups out front of an aluminum-­sided shop in Prescott, Arizona. The air shook with the punch of nail guns and the rattle of diesel engines, and a dry breeze wicked the last of winter’s humidity from the desert Southwest. It was early April, and the new leaves on the only two trees inside the fenced-­in compound rustled quietly.

From the driver’s seat, Grant watched seven or eight men huddle together inside the shop’s raised garage door. Like him, nearly all were in their early twenties and fit—­prime draftees, had Uncle Sam come calling. They wore oil-­stained Carhartt pants, faded flannel shirts, and down jackets with duct-­tape patches covering holes. Most had quit jobs washing dishes or parking cars as golf course valets to be frontline grunts in America’s long war on wildfires. None of them could have known it that April morning, but the Granite Mountain Hotshots would come to define their lives.

Grant made the long walk toward the men. His unused leather workboots, heavy and foreign, clicked on the blacktop as he entered the garage. He had an angular face, pronounced eyebrows, and dark hair recently cut to give him the put-­together look he liked. But what caught the other firefighters’ attention was his build: five feet seven inches, with the same muscled frame that had carried him to the varsity wrestling team as a high school freshman.

Inside, most of the guys silent sized the others up. Some knew one another. Others looked terrified. One fidgeted nervously, as if just being in Granite Mountain’s hallowed garage fulfilled a dream. Grant didn’t feel that way. He might have looked like a hotshot, but 2013 was his first season, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be one. If all went as planned, he’d make $30,000 by November and, with a résumé padded with first responder experience, move on to the paramedic job he actually wanted. At first glance, wildland firefighting seemed an odd step for Grant, even if the City of Prescott’s fire department hosted the wildland fire crew. He preferred movies and comfortable beds to the outdoors, and over the next eight months, the job would afford him very little time inside.

Granite Mountain’s modest and nondescript headquarters took up a corner of the closest thing the forty-­thousand-­person city of Prescott had to an industrial district. It didn’t look much like a real fire station. No hoses, no turnouts, red trucks, or spotted dogs. The inside smelled of two-­stroke gasoline and stale woodsmoke, and the walls were decorated with some of the more interesting things the guys had found in the woods. A deer’s jawbone sat on the tool rack with the screwdrivers, and a dozen rusted-­out pull-­tab Coors cans with sun-­cured pine needles sticking out of the tops filled one shelf. A jumble of wooden tool handles, some splintered from crushing swings, filled an entire corner, and chainsaws and their parts—­chains, carburetors, air filters—­cluttered a rolling island in the middle of the room. The hotshots called the place the saw shop, and Grant and a dozen other firefighters milled about, waiting for the shift to start.

A few minutes later, a diesel Ford F-­250 that was lifted eighteen inches off its oversize tires rumbled into the parking lot. Donut emerged and walked straight up to Grant and the other rookies. “You guys ready to learn?” he asked. Then he took his place nearby and struck up a loud conversation with other veterans.

“Get your asses in here!” boomed Eric Marsh, the crew’s superintendent, from inside the station’s ready room. He always looked forward to the return of the seasonal firefighters. Having fourteen more guys around—there were no women on this year’s crew—ensured a livelier atmosphere around the station.

Grant joined the throng of men funneling through the shop door and took a right into a conference room. A dozen Formica tables and folding chairs sat before blank whiteboards. Hanging on the walls were fire safety reminders—­your life is more important than any structure!—­and posters memorializing the two deadliest wildfires in recent history: Montana’s 1949 Mann Gulch Fire (thirteen deaths) and Colorado’s 1994 South Canyon Fire (fourteen deaths). Up front, Marsh sat alone.

“Morning, gentlemen,” Marsh said. A seasoned firefighter, he was in his early forties, a handsome man with a lantern jaw, a handlebar mustache, and a red-­and-­black Granite Mountain Hotshots ball cap pulled over a head of salt-­and-­pepper hair. One arm was in a sling from a mountain-­biking accident weeks earlier, a fact he chose not to elaborate on.

As the shuffling of chairs Quieted, Marsh looked out at the faces. Five crewmen had left Granite Mountain over the winter, and Marsh had to hire replacements, which was always a bit of a gamble. Hotshot work is rarely glamorous, and the months away from home, brutal physical labor, heat, poison oak, chainsaws, falling trees, and flames aren’t for everybody. Usually, a few new hires washed out in the first month or two, a few made it through a season but swore to never return, and a few fell in love with the job.

It was good to see some of the veterans back. Some of the hotshots had worked as seasonal employees under Marsh since he took over as Granite Mountain’s superintendent in 2006. There was Brandon Bunch, the laconic former bull rider who was starting his fourth season with Granite Mountain, and Andrew Ashcraft, an active member of the Mormon church, who was still sporting his well-­groomed mustache. At twenty-­nine, he had the looks of a Top Gun pilot and four kids. Marsh was in the process of converting Ashcraft to a permanent employee, but for the time being, the paperwork was caught in bureaucratic limbo. For the third year, Ashcraft was officially returning as a seasonal employee.

Marsh introduced himself and asked the crew’s full-time firefighters to do the same. Known collectively as the overhead, these seven hotshots commanded Granite Mountain. Jesse Steed, thirty-­six, was the captain, the number two in command. People called Jesse the picture-­perfect hotshot, and the ex-­Marine, who was six-­four and more than 220 pounds, never disputed the point. Beside Jesse sat the crew’s three squad bosses: Travis Carter, thirty-­one, who was a walk-­on football player at the University of Arizona and still looked the part; Clayton Whitted, twenty-­seven, a former youth pastor who brought church to the fire line; and Robert Caldwell, twenty-­three, a Prescott local with an IQ high enough to merit his acceptance in Mensa. The final two overhead were lead firefighters Chris MacKenzie, thirty, a California-­born longtime hotshot with such a laid-­back demeanor that his crewmantes often compared him to the Dude in The Big Lebowski, and Travis Turbyfill, twenty-seven, a moose-­size man who had seen combat in Afghanistan as a Marine and was a gifted mechanic.

“Tell us about yourselves,” Marsh said to the crew. Most of them didn’t know one another and didn’t want to speak. Marsh’s way of dealing with their shyness was to force his men to get over it. “Give us your name, how many years you’ve fought fire, and something . . . your favorite color, whatever you’d like,” he said.

At twenty, Grant was the youngest guy on the crew. He played it cocky, standing, saying his name, and coolly explained that his cousin was Bob Caldwell, one of the squad bosses. It didn’t go so easily for all the new guys.

“Dustin DeFord,” said a redheaded rookie who sat near Grant. “My favorite color is”—­DeFord paused for a second—­“black. It reminds me of fire.”

“That’s nice, Dustin,” Marsh said. “Thank you. Now please sit the fuck down.”

There are 114 twenty-­person hotshot crews nationwide, but the vast majority are stationed in the West. In New Mexico and Arizona, there are a total of twenty. With a forty-­one-­year-­old U.S. Forest Service crew stationed on the town’s north end, Prescott has two. Hotshots make up less than 5 percent of the estimated fifty-­six thousand federal and state wildland firefighters who battle blazes every summer. The remainder work on engines, less-qualified crews, water tenders, and aircraft, and as support staff. While the media often likens hotshots to the special forces of wildland firefighting, it’s an imperfect comparison. Unlike joining the Navy SEALs or the Army Rangers, which demand years of training, hotshot crews can accept new hires within a matter of days. On paper, becoming a hotshot requires only two basic courses, which can be completed online in hours, and the physical ability to hike three miles in forty-­five minutes while carrying a forty-­five-­pound pack. What separates hotshots from the other wildland firefighters is that they specialize in fighting America’s largest and most dangerous blazes.

No job in the firefighting profession requires its men and women to spend so much time on the edge of an active burn. Over the course of a thirty-­year career, a hotshot might fight eight hundred to one thousand fires. By contrast, a structural firefighter may battle only eighty over that same period. At its best, the job is the greatest adventure of many hotshots’ lives. At its worst, it varies little from the hard labor of a chain gang. For weeks, crews work sixteen-­hour days in soaring temperatures, using chainsaws and hand tools like Pulaskis and shovels to build control lines, or linear barriers clear of flammable materials, around wildfires. There are female hotshots, but usually no more than one or two on a given crew, and the overwhelming majority are young men in their twenties and thirties. Some are college-­educated, having quit high-­paying finance jobs in search of a simpler lifestyle in the woods, while others have left behind farms, reservations, or the inner city to make a year’s salary in eight months of work.

Crew cultures tend to be militaristic. Among the standard twenty-­head crew, at least seven are highly trained permanent firefighters—­the overhead. Among them are emergency medical technicians, men and women with decades of fire-­line experience, and chainsaw operators capable of cutting down trees as thick as some bridge pilings.

During the first few weeks of fire season, the overhead lead the new hotshots through a series of runs, hikes, and workouts that get the men into the best shape of their lives. Fitness is a matter of safety on the fire line: It’s required for moving efficiently through the mountains, but it’s also mandatory should a firefighter have to outrun a blaze. Granite Mountain called this intensive training period the two-­week critical, and it culminated in a drill at the end of April meant to test the hotshots’ new skills and fitness.

A week into the 2013 season, Marsh gathered the men and told them about his shoulder. He couldn’t return to the fire line until it healed, which might take months. The news meant that for the first time in the decade that Marsh had been a part of the crew’s overhead, he wouldn’t take part in the drill. His injury had been too severe. He made no effort to hide his disappointment. Marsh loved being superintendent and fighting fires. Until he returned, Tom Cooley, a City of Prescott structural firefighter with many years of hotshot experience, would take over as captain, and Jesse Steed, officially the captain, would become the interim superintendent.

The news thrilled Steed. He talked openly and often about his plan to someday take over as Granite Mountain’s superintendent, and even the temporary position gave him a chance to shape the crew. Among the first things Steed did was make the physical training punishingly intense.

The veterans expected him to do as much. During slow shifts on the line, Steed would often pound out a few dozen squats with a chainsaw on each shoulder or do lat pulls with forty-­gallon buckets of foam—­the soapy substance, mixed with water, that’s used to slow a fire’s spread. He designed the hardest workouts himself. One day he led the men to a three-­hundred-­foot hill and made them run up in their fire boots. Then they’d sprint back down, grab a chainsaw, and repeat the “Circle” six times. The hike up Thumb Butte, an aptly named chunk of black basalt that rises above Prescott, was even harder. Steed paired the hotshots up and made the teams race the two miles and six hundred vertical feet to the top, one man carrying the other on his back.

Most days, the intensity of Steed’s workouts made two or three guys puke from overexertion. Grant pushed himself so hard he vomited every day. In many ways, the work didn’t suit Grant. He was stylish, clean, and fastidious. Every night before bed, he’d fold and stack his firefighting clothes and place them at the foot of his bed in the order he’d put them on the next morning. Into his shoes went his socks—­one designated for the right foot, one for the left—­and those went next to the toilet for quick entry in the morning.

Table of Contents

Dramatis Personal ix

Prologue xi

Part 1 Tinderbox

Chapter 1 The Perfect Profession 3

Chapter 2 Training Day 11

Chapter 3 Marsh's Crew 29

Chapter 4 First Fire 43

Chapter 5 Justifiable Risk 51

Part 2 The Devouring Fire

Chapter 6 The Dynamite and the Wick 59

Chapter 7 To the East 67

Chapter 8 Bad Memories 73

Chapter 9 Lessons Learned 86

Chapter 10 In Country Not Seen in Daylight 96

Chapter 11 Tested 106

Chapter 12 We're Still Here 115

Chapter 13 Steed's Crew 136

Part 3 One Foot in the Black

Chapter 14 New Starts 155

Chapter 15 Hometown Pride 163

Chapter 16 Fire on the Mountain 181

Chapter 17 Initial Attack 188

Chapter 18 Byes in the Green 202

Chapter 19 Wind Shift 209

Chapter 20 Evacuate Immediately 217

Chapter 21 The Space Between 225

Chapter 22 Crossing the Line 236

Chapter 23 After 245

Epilogue 257

Acknowledgments 267

Notes 269

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On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book on a tragedy showing that not all heroes were guns.
Kyle_the_Cautious More than 1 year ago
This was a very interesting book that not only discussed the Yarnell fire that took the firefighters lives but also gave a good insight into how the nation fights fires. The author did a great job in helping the reader get to know the men and keeps you engrossed in the story throughout the entire book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Certainly written in the style of "The Perfect Storm" and others of that ilk. Fast-paced and engaging. Topic is certainly interesting, but his description of the manner in which these firefighters worked seems to presuppose a lot of knowledge a novice would find difficult to follow. Book needed many more maps to follow the narrative. The ending is very, very touching - I'm a little prejudiced because I know many wildfire firefighters since I was personally affected by one of the fires mentioned in the book (not Yarnell) and I contributed to the fund for the fallen.