Skip to main content

When heroes face down fire -- and fate

By Clay Morgan, Special to CNN
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Wed July 3, 2013
A deadly wildfire leaves behind little but a burned-out car and the remains of a house in a Yarnell, Arizona, neighborhood on Wednesday, July 3. The fire started a week ago near Yarnell, apparently because of lightning strikes. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/07/us/yarnell-fire/index.html' target='_blank'>Nineteen firefighters were killed</a> Sunday, June 30, battling the blaze northwest of Phoenix. A deadly wildfire leaves behind little but a burned-out car and the remains of a house in a Yarnell, Arizona, neighborhood on Wednesday, July 3. The fire started a week ago near Yarnell, apparently because of lightning strikes. Nineteen firefighters were killed Sunday, June 30, battling the blaze northwest of Phoenix.
HIDE CAPTION
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
Deadly wildfire burns in Arizona
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clay Morgan: "And there they were ..." begins stories about firefighters like the Yarnell 19
  • As a smokejumper facing dangerous fires, he gets what might have drawn them to job
  • He says the Arizona firefighters were heroes in wrong place
  • Morgan: They were more alive than most of us are; more vital and committed in their lives

Editor's note: Clay Morgan worked as a paracargo specialist, fire lookout, engine crewman, hotshot and smokejumper from 1969 to 1985. He now directs The Story Initiative at Boise State University. His latest novel is "The Boy Who Spoke Dog."

(CNN) -- "And there we were ..."

That phrase begins many stories told by wildland firefighters.

"We thought we had it knocked down."

"It got up into the trees."

"Suddenly, fire was everywhere."

Fire falling and bouncing and pouring like lava down mountainsides. Fire exploding into tree crowns and launching a thousand bright brands. Fire taking your breath and replacing it with fire.

Or at least that's what if feels like during a blow-up.

Clay Morgan
Clay Morgan

Of course, fire stories like those are told by the living. On Sunday in Arizona, 19 Granite Mountain hotshots battling the Yarnell Fire lost their lives when things got bad too fast. Their story is now being pieced together out of the ashes by those who were not there with them.

And there they were. ... But why were they there? Why were 19 men who were so full of life so drawn to this dangerous occupation?

Remembering the firefighters

I started on a Montana hotshot crew years ago and worked 12 fire seasons as a Forest Service smokejumper, parachuting to fight wildfires in the West and Alaska. It was hard work and high adventure -- the best job I've ever had, the best people with whom I've worked. Like the Yarnell hotshots, we charged toward the fires, lugging heavy packs and swinging heavy tools, digging firelines and felling trees, separating the fuels from the fires.

'Words cannot describe the loss'
Community grieves for 'Hotshots'
Mom of fallen firefighter shares grief
The 20th firefighter

My first jump fire was a two-manner, high on Mogollon Baldy Peak in New Mexico.

Roger Mello and I fought a small lightning fire, until another huge bolt exploded a ponderosa pine tree right below us in a blast so bright that I saw its afterimage for an entire minute. We put out that fire and then were helicoptered out, to land in front of magnificent and ancient cliff dwellings. I was hooked, just like thousands of other wildland firefighters.

There were always close calls.

In Alaska, with a fire pressing us, we built an island of rocks out in a small lake and stood on it to let the fire blow past us. On another fire call, our Twin Beech crash-landed on the edge of the Yukon River. We squeezed out through a wing window as the plane began to burn.

In Idaho's River of No Return Wilderness, with the fire heating up below us, we sawed down a dead tree and used its trunk as a battering ram to bust up a granite reef and build a helicopter landing pad.

Of course, we should not have been up on that ridge top with the fire cooking below us.

The phrase, "And there we were ..." whispers the cause of almost every firefighting fatality. Firefighters sometimes go -- and sometimes they are sent -- where they should never have gone.

Norman Maclean's famous book, "Young Men and Fire," about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire incident, which took 13 smoke jumpers' lives, reads like a classic Greek tragedy, complete with lessons of hubris and fate. Nonfirefighters often love that book. But firefighters will read it and shake their heads. All we can think is that they shouldn't have gone down there.

Lookout warned team before fire killed 19

Firefighting deaths are never classical tragedies. However, those who perish fighting fires are indeed heroes. Their last moments are pinnacles of high emotion and drama. Hold your breath and imagine it.

In 1994, a fire crew was caught on Colorado's Storm King Mountain by a fire flashing up through brush that had already burned once. Some sheltered. Some ran. Two made it out over the ridgetop. When rescuers arrived, they found a surreal scene.

The bodies they found lower on the slope were burned beyond recognition. Those they found higher had been caught in a blast that was extreme but brief. Their bodies appeared as though they had been bronzed. They looked like Rodin statues, cast in their last moments of heroic, doomed struggle.

There they were. And there the Yarnell 19 were, on their Arizona fire last Sunday where they should not have been.

And yet they were so right to want to be there. They were more alive than most of us are, more vital, more committed and more sincere in their lives.

They fought fire to protect others' lives and property. They shouldered the burden and faced the dangers. As heroes do.

God bless the Yarnell 19.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clay Morgan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT