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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.
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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
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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.

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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.

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

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