Wildfire is a fact of life in Prescott, Arizona, and the month of June an especially treacherous stretch. I lived there for fifteen years. I know this. My brother and sister grew up there. They know this. Yet that did nothing to temper our shock when we heard the news this last weekend that nineteen of our own had died.
Nineteen of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives on June 30th, fighting to defend Yarnell from a blaze that started when lightning struck the hills outside this former mining town. These were no ordinary firefighters, but an elite cadre of highly trained, seasoned veterans, many of them local boys, accustomed to being deployed in the blink of an eye to wherever wildfire strikes. They were the Navy SEALs of firefighters—the best of the best, the badassest of the badass.
Simply in terms of the hard-won wildfire-fighting knowledge embodied in these young men, this is a tremendous loss. (It is, in fact, according to the New York Times, the largest number of American firefighters to have died in a single disaster since 9/11.) But the personal loss is even greater.
My brother and I were visiting our sister in L.A. when we caught wind of this new fire in Yarnell—our Hotshot crew had barely had time to catch its breath, it seemed, in the wake of Prescott’s own Doce Fire, before this next one hit.
Though I moved to Portland a few years back, I’ve kept up with friends in Arizona via Facebook, and one of these friends, I knew, had recently married a Prescott firefighter. Her wedding pictures flashed through my head—though we’d never been close, Prescott is a tight-knit community, and I’d known her for nearly a decade.
Over the years, she’d gone through a divorce with the father of her child, despite all best efforts, and become a single mom in her twenties. When she met her firefighter, it was clear that she’d stumbled into a sort of fairytale. Their wedding photos showed a young family deeply and obviously in love.
So when my sister turned to me and spoke his name that day—had I known him?—I felt the bottom drop out of my gut.
Both my brother and sister had gone to school with him. They remembered the great parties he’d thrown, what a kind and generous person he was.
It seems to me that unless we happen to know someone personally involved, such tragedies tend to strike us as regrettable abstractions. Sad, to be sure, but sad on the level that the impending extinction of polar bears is sad, or the cave-in of a mine somewhere in Mexico.
But because of this personal connection—to a girlfriend I’d been so happy for, no doubt now gobsmacked by grief—this tragedy hit a nerve. When I saw her tearful face on the news in the airport on my way home to Portland, I found myself openly weeping for her. For the loss of her husband, the loving step-father of her boy. For the loss of that great true love.
And somehow, this grief opened a door inside me. I began to feel all of it: what the families of all the people killed by the Boston Marathon Bombings must have felt, the families of those who died in Aurora.
But perhaps even more so, the families of those who have died in natural disasters in the course of this dangerous millennium already. Those who died in hurricanes Katrina and Irene—the tornadoes in Oklahoma—the tsunamis in Japan.
Like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, wildfires are a fact of life on planet Earth. But on June 30, when the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives, temperatures hovered in the upper 90s in both L.A., where I was visiting my sister, and Portland, where I live—and 115 in Phoenix, where my brother resides. Rising temperatures have real consequences, and those consequences have already claimed the lives of real human beings, with real stories, and real people who love them.
As of Monday, July 1, both the Yarnell Hill Fire and 15 major fires were still raging in New Mexico, California, and Idaho. In Prescott, the Doce Fire that the Granite Mountain Hotshots heroically beat back is still burning, though contained. It has been said the rising heat, increasingly unpredictable precipitation patterns, and extreme drought conditions are part of the “new normal” in the West.
Like the latest tragedy in some far-off land, the factors contributing to a warming planet can seem both abstract and distant. It’s hard to feel heartbroken over carbon emissions.
And yet, when a tragedy of this nature strikes home, we’re given a chance to feel it. To understand that what we’re talking about when we talk about reaching 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we’re talking about saving lives.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I can think of no more striking a symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire truck.” For the sake of our first responders—and those on the front lines of global warming everywhere—I hope we can honor the lives of our fallen with some sacrifices of our own.
(For stunning photographs of central Arizona’s recent wildfires–including the one that appears in this post–see the personal blog of Walt Anderson, geolobo.)