“The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting” (Flatiron Books), by Fernanda Santos
It began as a routine assignment for the 20 men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Wielding picks, axes, shovels and chain saws, they set out to build a barrier to protect homes and people from an Arizona wildfire sparked by lightning.
Within hours, their mission ended in tragedy. Fifty mph winds set off by a powerful thunderstorm had changed direction, fanning a raging fire that raced down Yarnell Hill, cutting off the crew’s escape route and trapping the men in a canyon. Nineteen of them perished, the bodies found in portable fire shelters that were no match for the 2,000-degree heat. The death toll of professional wildland firefighters was the largest in more than a century. The only survivor was the assigned lookout who barely escaped the flames.
In this riveting and poignant narrative, Fernanda Santos introduces the reader to a brave band of men, most of them in their 20s, who battle destructive wildfires that pose a mounting threat as developers in the West build vacation and retirement homes in areas where urban boundaries intersect with fire-prone woods and brush. Based in Prescott, Arizona, Granite Mountain was one of 107 elite Hotshot crews in the U.S. at the time of the 2013 fire and the only one run by a municipality.
Its members are deployed around the country, riding in 10-seat, diesel-powered “buggies” that transport them to the fires. Once there, their task is to fell trees, hack away brush and cut roots to build a fire line that can block the flames. It’s a task that demands strength, endurance and teamwork. The pay is meager — rookies received $12.09 an hour — and crew members relied on long hours of overtime during fire season to make ends meet.
Santos, the Phoenix bureau chief for The New York Times, covered the Yarnell Hill story and was taken with the stories of victims she admired but never met. She bonded with family members to learn about the lives of these fallen firefighters, some of them “second chancers” who saw the physical challenge and discipline of the job as a path toward overcoming earlier stumbles that ranged from alcoholism or drug addiction to minor crimes.
The author also walked the walk, taking two courses at a wildfire management academy in Prescott that many of the Granite Mountain crew had attended. She donned flame-resistant clothing, wielded the tools of the Hotshots’ trade, cut fire line in the wild and even practiced deploying an emergency shelter that she carried along with a loaded backpack.
The product of her efforts is a gripping account of one of the nation’s most deadly wildfires and an inspiring look at the men who put their lives on the line and the loved ones they left behind.
The book is reminiscent of Norman Maclean’s classic “Young Men and Fire” that told of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in western Montana that killed 13 firefighters, and his son John’s story of the 1994 South Canyon fire in Colorado that took 14 lives. Santos has turned out a worthy addition to the genre.