Those heroes in Arizona died trying to protect homes foolishly built where fires are a big risk


Timothy Egan NAILS IT:

Once again, the question hangs over another of the oft-lovely places where fire is at the top of the predator chain: what did they die for? Young men trained to be the best of the best are not supposed to take their last breaths inside the oven of a foil shelter, facedown in hot ground, gasping through the roar of a blowup.

Without question they were heroes, the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Like Smokejumpers in the Forest Service, the Hotshots routinely put themselves on the flank of a fire where no one else will go. If you live in the West, you know them as graduate students or mountain bikers — your neighbors who put on a yellow shirt and 40 pounds of gear to save the place you love.

But as to the question, the why of their deaths: every homeowner in the arid lands owes these fallen men an answer. More than ever, wild land firefighters die for people’s summer homes and year-round retreats. They die protecting property, kitchen views, dreams cast in stucco and timber.

And so it was in Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday: the Hotshots were sent to the advance guard of a tricky fire in order to protect a former gold-mining community that had become a haven for retirees. After an evacuation order, most of the homes were empty. They were just fuel at that point.

Sunday’s fatal toll from the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona was the greatest loss of firefighter lives in the United States since Sept. 11. But those who died in New York that terrible day were not rushing into a building in order to protect property — they were trying to save lives.

You can’t blame people for living amid the chaparral and piñon pine in the sweep of Arizona where the land rises up from the ceaseless heat of the valley to the cooler air of the plateau. It’s stunning country, even with the menace of monsoon winds in summer. Nor can you blame people in Colorado for living with the sweet fragrance of a forest at 9,000 feet. In the last two decades, by one estimate, almost 40 percent of the new homes built in the West are smack dab in the middle of fire country — a habitat of high risk.

But these homeowners should not expect good people to die protecting those houses. And so in Arizona this week, among the grieving, we heard variations of a theme that always comes up after these tragedies: a structure is replaceable, a life is not.


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