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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT