“In Fernanda Santos’ expert hands, the story of 19 men and a raging wildfire unfolds as a riveting, pulse-pounding account of an American tragedy; and also as a meditation on manhood, brotherhood and family love. The Fire Line is a great and deeply moving book about courageous men and women.”
- Héctor Tobar, author of Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle that Set Them Free.
When a bolt of lightning ignited a hilltop in the sleepy town of Yarnell, Arizona, in June of 2013, setting off a blaze that would grow into one of the deadliest fires in American history, the twenty men who made up the Granite Mountain Hotshots sprang into action.
An elite crew trained to combat the most challenging wildfires, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were a ragtag family, crisscrossing the American West and wherever else the fires took them. The Hotshots were loyal to one another and dedicated to the tough job they had. There's Eric Marsh, their devoted and demanding superintendent who turned his own personal demons into lessons he used to mold, train and guide his crew; Jesse Steed, their captain, a former Marine, a beast on the fire line and a family man who wasn’t afraid to say “I love you” to the firemen he led; Andrew Ashcraft, a team leader still in his 20s who struggled to balance his love for his beautiful wife and four children and his passion for fighting wildfires. We see this band of brothers at work, at play and at home, until a fire that burned in their own backyards leads to a national tragedy.
Impeccably researched, drawing upon more than a hundred hours of interviews with the firefighters’ families, colleagues, state and federal officials, and fire historians and researchers, New York Times Phoenix Bureau Chief Fernanda Santos has written a riveting, pulse-pounding narrative of an unthinkable disaster, a remarkable group of men and the raging wildfires that threaten our country’s treasured wild lands.
The Fire Line is the winner of the 2017 Spur Award for Best First Nonfiction Book, and Spur Award Finalist for Best Western Contemporary Nonfiction.
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The Fire Line
The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting
By Fernanda Santos
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Fernanda Santos
All rights reserved.
The man flashed a broad, gap-toothed grin and introduced himself: "I'm Darrell Willis," chief of the Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division. Willis felt at ease and proud as he looked upon the select group of young men facing him on the inaugural day of the 2013 fire season. The Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only municipal Hotshot crew in the country, stood at attention in front of their chief. "Your life has changed today," Willis told them. "You're in a fishbowl, and people are going to judge you by your actions." A lot of people, other skilled crews, a lot of fire brass, would watch and wait for them to falter, he said. They had to set an example, work hard and work right, prove the doubters wrong, on and off the fire line.
Willis had broomstick posture and a trim physique for someone old enough to be their father. At fifty-eight, he still ran four or five miles a day, and still had what it took to fill in when injury or illness left a hole in the crew. He wore a snug, dark-blue shirt, tucked in khaki cargo pants. He kept his cell phone clipped to a black leather belt. His thick head of hair was parted crisply to the right, and when he spoke, he sounded firm and deliberate, locking eyes in turn with each of the men before him, as if individually addressing each. He oozed discipline.
The men trained their eyes on Willis in obedient attention, a cast of wildland firefighters looking to impress. They'd settled on assorted chairs and behind rows of Formica desks in the ready room at Station 7, the Granite Mountain Hotshots' base in Prescott, Arizona, a mountain city of thirty-nine thousand ringed by parched forestland that lightning often sparked. Seven of them were veterans, returning for another season of duty, seven months of stifling fires in the wild. Seven were newly hired. One of the rookies, Kevin Woyjeck, sat in the front row, a studious recruit drinking it all in on the crew's first day at work, April 9, 2013. He had a faint dimple on his chin, freckles on his nose, and a trace of facial hair. He was twenty-one, a firefighter's son, like Willis. And like Willis, he'd fulfilled a childhood dream when he'd joined the fire service.
Willis glanced at Woyjeck and stifled a smile, smitten by the sight of a kid so purely happy to be accepted. Willis admired the kid's earnest conviction that this was indeed the right place for him. Woyjeck's innocence was refreshing in the macho world of Hotshots. In the opening of his résumé, he'd typed, "Objective: To be part of a hard working, professional, and well respected crew, while continuing to gain experience in my chosen career."
Woyjeck wanted to work for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, where his father, Joe, was a captain. Kevin had strategized, filling out his résumé with the most suitable experiences, ones that would make him maximally attractive before he applied. He'd got his EMT license right after high school and worked for a year for a private ambulance company. Then, he was hired by the Bear Mountain Hand Crew, a wildland team in South Dakota, after passing a drug test and answering a handful of questions over the phone. In 2013, he'd thought about going to Alaska, where wildfires burn across gorgeous landscape — and where he could also do a lot of fishing; Woyjeck loved fishing. But his father reasoned with him, saying that Alaska was too far and too difficult for his parents to get to. Woyjeck had asked, "Where, then?" Joe had heard good things about this crew from Prescott, Arizona, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Woyjeck spent hours online, researching it, learning about its history, its mission. He liked what he saw. The location also made sense: his father had relatives in and near Phoenix, and Anna, his mom, had grown up in Tucson, a few hours' drive away.
Woyjeck joined the Granite Mountain Hotshots as a soldier, not a leader, embracing the crew's strict hierarchy, and accepting the shut-up-and-buck-up attitude that went with his newbie post. He was there to learn.
"Woyjeck! Give me the ten and the eighteen," Willis, about to school him, said loudly and firmly. It was a joke, not a test. The returning crew members knew that. In their world, pranks and ribbings equaled affection.
To graduate from the fire academy, Woyjeck had had to memorize the Ten Standard Firefighting Orders and the Eighteen Watchout Situations — basic rules, steps that everyone on the fire line is expected to take to keep himself and one another alive and safe. Fire Order No. 2: "Know what your fire is doing at all times." Watchout Situation No. 12: "Cannot see the main fire, not in contact with anyone who can." The US Forest Service, by far the country's largest employer of Hotshot crews, had developed the guidelines in the 1950s in response to fire-line fatalities. They're lessons learned in the hardest possible ways.
Woyjeck stuttered, too nervous to recollect them on that cool, overcast day in Prescott, before coworkers he hardly knew. His father had taped a card listing them inside the helmet he had worn when fighting wildfires in Southern California. Grant McKee, another rookie, still twenty years old on the season's opening day, kept a similar card in his wallet. He'd picked up the habit from his cousin Robert Caldwell, twenty-three, in his fourth fire season with Granite Mountain and newly promoted to squad boss, one of six official full-time positions on the crew that year.
Caldwell had smarts, but no patience for school. He'd struggled to get through four years of high school in Prescott and graduated out of stubbornness, to prove to his parents that he could do it, even though he saw no need. He had a knack for doing things well his own way, with a big, fun personality. On eighties nights at Coyote Joe's, a bar on Whiskey Row, where residents and visitors go in Prescott to eat and have a good time, he wore neon-pink shorts that glowed on the darkened dance floor, illuminating his gangly legs. On his first job, working for a company that operated wildland firefighting equipment in neighboring Chino Valley, he'd held a flashlight with his teeth and spent a night fixing a truck his boss had struggled to start for days, just to prove himself. Unlike friends who had gone away for college, Robert didn't want to leave Prescott, and he certainly didn't want to spend the rest of his life doing office work. With the Granite Mountain Hotshots, his free spirit and larger-than-life personality could thrive.
He and his girlfriend, Claire, had talked marriage and he'd told her they'd have to go through a fire season together first to see if she could handle it. The last thing he wanted was a woman calling him on the fire line, nagging him about stuff he could do nothing about — a broken sink, a clogged toilet — and berating him for leaving her alone. He felt he had no choice. He had a job to do.
They married after his first fire season with the crew. But still, he told Claire before every fire, "I see you when I see you." It was his gentle reminder of the unpredictability of a profession practiced at the whim of the weather, a warming climate, and the escalating intensity of that cunning natural force — fire. He often said that he'd rather die in his boots than in a suit.
Hotshot crews are cohesive units of twenty firefighters, extensively trained, hugely fit, and routinely courageous — but, as they often said, only as strong as their weakest link. If the burning wilderness is a battlefield, they're the infantry, engaging the enemy on foot. They use the weapons of construction workers and landscapers: rakes, axes, shovels, pounders. They go where few other firefighters go, closer than any of them to a burning wildfire. In bureaucratic terms, they're an interagency resource — they fight fires wherever fires are burning and only engage in fires that fit the official definition of complex. The size of the fire matters, but the difficulties it presents — and, increasingly, the number of homes it threatens — determine the risks, challenges, and manpower deployed.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots was one of 107 Hotshot crews in the country in 2013, the only one to have a city as its employer, and only one of two to operate under the auspices of a structural fire department. The arrangement compressed disparate worlds, mushed them together in a city hugged by forest — concrete and wildlands, brick walls and the big sky, bureaucracies and risk-takers in a tug-of-war between the tamed and the wild.
Life on the crew revolved around busy schedules and austere routines: training, fires, meals, sleep, and travel, often in carriers known in the Southwest as buggies. Their Caterpillar diesel engines and stiff suspensions made for loud, brutal rides. Granite Mountain had a retrofitted Ford F-750 for each of its squads, Alpha and Bravo. Most other Hotshot crews rode green buggies, identifying them as part of the Forest Service. Granite Mountain's buggies were white, a deliberate distinction. With heavy-duty steel-ladder frames and axles, they were workhorses on rough roads in to assignments, mile upon mile of cracked asphalt and dirt crisscrossing gorgeous corners of the country few others ever visit.
In 2011, the crew traveled 16,150 miles in those white buggies, ending their season in a million-acre preserve sliced by one thousand miles of water trails in northern Minnesota, where flames were skipping over lakes and burning through duff despite a light snow. In 2012, the buggies covered 19,450 miles in five months, from West Texas to western Idaho, corkscrewing along the counterclockwise pattern that usually defines the summer cycle of fires in the American West. The Hotshots were like migrant farm workers chasing harvest time from state to state.
In Jesse Steed, the crew's captain, a veteran of eleven wildfire seasons, they had found the ideal player-coach. Steed, thirty-six, offered the Hotshots warm guidance and set punishing physical standards they had to follow. On hikes along Trail #33 on Thumb Butte, a steep and circuitous climb to a ridge just below the mountain's rocky crest, whoever reached the top first had to turn around, join the person at the tail end of the line, and hike with him back to the top. When the Hotshots got to a certain cattle guard along the way, they had to carry one another on their backs. They had created and nurtured a culture of loyalty, a system that rewarded teamwork and endurance — group gold, not individual glory. That was the crew's spirit. Willis, Steed, and Granite Mountain's superintendent, Eric Marsh, stressed it to the new recruits on that first day at work.
A firefighter's job requires unquestioning trust and unwavering commitment, Marsh told them. It's an honor profession, like that of a priest or a doctor. There's no room for lapses of integrity. Among his men, Marsh focused the point further. He knew he could get them to be great wildland firefighters, but could he also make them honorable? "Every decision you make from now on affects others," he'd tell the men at the start of every season. "Look around. They are you."
His emphasis on obedience, in its purest form, reflected his needs as a commander, perhaps even his vanity. But it was effective, if flawed. His search for the most susceptible characters — "the perfect people," as Willis described them — wasn't random. Marsh had a sort of sixth sense for plucking them out of a crowded field of pretenders.
It all started with hiring.
Landing a job at the Granite Mountain Hotshots required persistence and patience, rituals of a peculiar courtship. The wholly personal process was entirely different from the dispassionate hiring procedures mandated for federal crews. For those positions, candidates register on a Web site, usajobs.gov, and click on answers to some questions — about citizenship and military service (veterans have hiring priority), the types of jobs they'd accept (permanent, temporary, seasonal), and if they're open to traveling and relocating. Then, they upload a résumé and wait for the phone to ring. Back in the government office, the candidates are ranked in descending order, based on preferential status, experience, and skill. Their names are organized on lists, and the lists are shared across ten regional centers in charge of wildland firefighting operations in the United States. The Southwest Coordination Center, in Albuquerque, handles the final selection of candidates for jobs in Arizona or New Mexico. New hires for federal Hotshot crews might not meet a crew's superintendent until their first day of training.
Marsh, forty-three, liked to size people up before they even turned in a job application. In November, with a fire season ended and with another several months away, young men came knocking at Station 7, looking to introduce themselves to the boss, maybe get a word in with him. Marsh took time to learn about these young men and took particular interest in those who expressed kinship with the outdoors — perhaps they'd grown up shoeing horses on the family ranch, camping, hunting, fishing, exploring the land. He knew that comfort with nature couldn't be taught. Some of these young men returned after that first meeting to work out with the crew's leaders — the Overhead — and observe them. To Marsh, that level of dedication made them promising prospects. Often, he'd move such an applicant onto a short list for interviews. In a single year, the Granite Mountain Hotshots received an average of ninety applications. Of those applicants, about twenty made it to the short list.
During interviews, also in the ready room at Station 7, Marsh leaned back on his chair, crossed his arms, looked into a candidate's eyes, and asked, "When was the last time you lied?" His speech had a memorable rhythm, unhurried, almost musical, a drawl of the North Carolina mountains of his youth that he'd never shed. He looked for signs of honesty — "what's in their soul," he'd told Willis. Everybody lies, but do you have enough character to admit it? That's what he'd taught the crew's leaders to search out. Jesse Steed had mastered the question-and-answer drill. He liked to say that if a man can own up to a stupid lie, he'd be truthful, no matter about what or to whom.
The question disarmed men who'd prepped to discuss fitness regimens, work experiences, and those rules of wildland firefighting they'd memorized. Billy Warneke, twenty-five, had written those Ten Standard Firefighting Orders and Eighteen Watchout Situations on index cards. Roxanne, his wife, had flipped through the cards and quizzed Billy from the passenger seat of his Ford F-150 during drives to the movies and the supermarket. He'd dressed up for the interview, putting on black pants, a black shirt, and a plain red tie; Roxanne had convinced him to wear it instead of the tie that pictured the red-haired cartoon character Yosemite Sam holding a long-barreled pistol in each hand. Though the orders and situations never came up during Billy's interview, the question about his last lie did. Billy came clean. Roxanne had called from work, asking if he'd washed the breakfast dishes. "Yes," he'd replied, although the dishes lay dirty in the sink; he'd played Call of Duty on PlayStation 3 instead.
The interviews were the last hurdle, and for the Overhead, a last chance of catching false positives.
Marsh had a soft spot for underdogs — some called them misfits and losers. To these men and women, he spoke plainly about the alcoholism buried in his own past. He used such conversations to straighten errant paths, and to inspire. He liked to say, "We turn boys into men."
He knew how experiences could scar and bruise, and Marsh connected with the recruits about what it takes to overcome the bad hand life can deal you. In their stories, he looked for strength of character, resilience, discipline, respect, compassion, generosity, confidence. He despised arrogance. He searched for leadable firefighters who could also be leaders, men bound by a shared certainty of their greater identity and utility as a team.
Brendan McDonough had laid it all out during his interview in 2011 — the drugs he'd used, the trials of a fatherless childhood, his criminal record. He'd been caught on surveillance video driving away from a car break-in at a Walmart parking lot in Prescott and had pleaded guilty to acting as a lookout in the theft of a GPS and radar detector from the vehicle. He'd felt remorseful and ashamed. He had a baby daughter and wanted to do right by her. He yearned for a steady road and a guiding hand. McDonough was soft-spoken and respectful, a yes-sir kind of guy who also knew the dangers lurking behind his idea of a good time. He clearly lacked direction. He told the Overhead that he'd been through Fire Service Exploring, a Boy Scouts' program for kids ages fourteen to twenty-one. It had taught him to get geared up fast, hook up the breathing mask and tank urban firefighters wear to enter burning buildings. He could find his way around a fire truck, he said. Those were unimportant skills for wildland firefighters, but they attested to a desire for a stable path. Marsh gambled and took him in.
Excerpted from The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos. Copyright © 2016 Fernanda Santos. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Guys 11
Saving a Tree 36
A Bolt of Lightning 58
Calculating Risk 69
A Sleeping Fire Awakens 75
Promises and Goodbyes 93
A Treacherous Combination 111
Trouble in the Sky 118
Change in the Winds 138
No Answer 144
Two Thousand Degrees 174
Coming Home 179
"We Take Care of Our Own" 189
An End, and New Beginnings 201
Authors Note 219