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 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
updated 7:31 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Ruth Ben-Ghiat says WWI enshrined the enduring notion that words cannot adequately express the experience of combat -- that the veteran will often remain silent about the trauma of war.
updated 5:27 PM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Obama's Asia trip is his first chance since the midterms to show the power of presidency, Michael Green says.
updated 7:34 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Frida Ghitis asks why President Obama has written another letter to Iran's Supreme Leader about the nuclear deal.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT