The word ‘hero’ is too easily attributed to those who have no relationship to the term. The privileged and famous are often mistakenly put into this category by mistaken admirers. No great athlete, no movie star, no politician, and no CEO of a major corporation can possibly fit into the definition of ‘hero.’ One group can, and deservers the label beyond all others. Firefighters are America’s true heroes.
A group of 20 young men known as the ‘Granite Mountain Hotshots’ were in the forefront of a hazardous forest fire in central Arizona. All but one of them perished Sunday in the worst disaster of its type in 80 years.
Experts assume that a shift in the winds caused the men to be engulfed by flames. Some attempted to seek shelter in their foil-lined, heat resistant tarps, but the gale like winds, and the fire’s hellacious heat was more than their minimal protection could withstand.
The ‘Hotshots’ were attempting to place a firebreak between the flames and the small town of Yarnell. The 20 men, all in their 20’s, were based in Prescott, Arizona. The lone survivor was moving a truck at the time of the disaster. Both small towns are in mourning.
Arizona’s governor called it “as dark a day as I can remember” and ordered flags flown at half-staff. In a heartbreaking sight, a long line of white vans carried the bodies to Phoenix for autopsies.
“I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today,” said Governor Jan Brewer, her voice catching several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School in the town of 40,000.
The fire was believed to have been caused by lightening, and spread to 13 square miles by Monday morning. The ferocious fire has destroyed 50 homes, and is threatening 250 more in and around Yarnell, a town of only 700 people.
Monday an additional 200 firefighters joined in the effort to control the flames, making the total about 400. Among the additional members of the force were several other ‘hotshot’ teams.
The exact details of how the 19 men were trapped so quickly are unclear. But fire crews said that the area of the fire spread from 200 acres to 2000 in a matter of hours. The winds had changed directions, with gusts of 40 to 50 miles per hour.
The devastating fire was a combination of dry conditions, and the fact that there had been no forest fires in the area for several years, which would have cleared some of the undergrowth.
All Prescott Fire Chief Dan Freijo said is that he feared the worst when he received a call Sunday afternoon from someone assigned to the fire.
“All he said was `We might have bad news. The entire Hotshot crew deployed their shelters,'” Fraijo said. “When we talk about deploying the shelters, that’s an automatic fear, absolutely. That’s a last-ditch effort to save yourself when you deploy your shelter.”
19 heroes, 19 of America’s finest young men who were truly worthy of the name, perished Sunday, doing what they were trained to do, and doing it selflessly. The entire country shed tears, as the parade of white vans left the mountain.
Alfred James reporting