“They were heroes — highly skilled professionals”

(Originally published at 7:35 p.m. MDT September 27, 2017)

Today I was looking back at what I wrote at 6:15 p.m. MDT June 30, 2013, the day 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. What initially got my interest was the fact that a fire that had been burning for only about 48 hours had ordered a Type 1 Incident Management Team — a little unusual, but not unheard of, for a young fire.

That evening I found some intermittent live video from ABC15, a photo posted on Twitter by Jeffrey Blackburn (@lensjb) showing very active fire behavior, and a post by @wildfirediva saying three large air tankers and two Very Large Air Tankers were working the fire.

But the one that really got my attention was this:

Below are portions of a statement released by President Obama the next day:

…They were heroes — highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet. … But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.

Yarnell Hill Fire firefighters killed
The 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

I continued to update the story on a near-real-time basis for the next five days.

Now as October 20 grows closer I have been thinking more frequently about what happened 1573 days before that date.

On October 20 a movie “based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots” will be widely released — Only the Brave. Many firefighters, former firefighters, and those closely associated with those 19 individuals are apprehensive about this, perhaps for a variety of reasons. How will the producers, writers, actors, and the director treat this event that that still deeply touches a large number of people? Can a for-profit company make a commercial movie about a very sensitive fatal incident that does not take advantage of deep-seated feelings and in some instances mild or serious cases of posttraumatic stress disorder?

Only the Brave movie

The film is not a documentary, so it is a given that it will take liberties with the actual facts. It has to tell a story, and most movie treatments have a conflict that eventually is resolved — or not. What will that conflict be in this adaptation of the story?

Many of the outdoor scenes were shot in northern New Mexico in the Santa Fe area where the fuels and terrain are very different from the fatality site on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona.

And, the objective of the makers of the project, Black Label Media, Columbia Pictures, and Sony, is to make money.

These issues do not mean it can’t be a great film after which most moviegoers will leave feeling uplifted, or at least satisfied that the events and the real people involved, many still alive today, were treated fairly and honestly.

This project is not unprecedented. There have probably been hundreds of movies made based on real events in which dozens or hundreds of people died. Some were great, and others were not.

Little real information about the movie has been disclosed. There have been a couple of trailers, mostly based on action scenes. I have not seen anything about the story behind the action, or what drives the characters.

There have been a few quotes from actors and a producer that have been encouraging. The word “hero” has been used in describing the Hotshots. Here’s the official description of the film:

It’s not what stands in front of you… it’s who stands beside you. Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is the heroic story of one unit of local firefighters that through hope, determination, sacrifice, and the drive to protect families, communities, and our country become one of the most elite firefighting teams in the nation.  As most of us run from danger, they run toward it – they watch over our lives, our homes, everything we hold dear, as they forge a unique brotherhood that comes into focus with one fateful fire.

Molly Smith, an executive with Black Label Media, said it’s the film she’s most proud of:

We hope you feel, when you see it, as patriotic and proud as we have to have some of the greatest firefighters in the world constantly putting themselves out there for our well being. The ones who have lost their lives we honor respectfully every day, and the ones who wake up covered with dirt and ash and stale coffee on their breath (and always a ribbing laughter) we salute you again and again and again. I hope you feel we have represented you well.

A few weeks ago in an Entertainment Weekly interview, Josh Brolin (Eric Marsh, Crew Superintendent in the film) who for a while was a volunteer firefighter in Arizona, talked about how the actors in the movie still maintain regular contact even after the filming ended a year ago:

This was different, probably because of the subject matter. Nobody’s willing to let it go.

The film has the potential to have some realistic elements. At least one former Granite Mountain Hotshot provided advice as it was being made. The firefighter-actors participated in a multi-day fire boot camp before filming began. The pictures I have seen show the actors wearing typical wildland firefighting gear, and Granite Mountain Hotshot’s actual crew buggies were used.

A new foundation has been created apparently by the film’s producers, called the Granite Mountain Fund, described as a “philanthropic initiative of ONLY THE BRAVE”. The website promises that 98.5 percent of the donated funds will go to one of six organizations, including the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, the Eric Marsh Foundation, and Prescott Firefighter’s Charities.

Granite Mountain Fund

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

6 thoughts on ““They were heroes — highly skilled professionals””

  1. Thank you for your analysis of the movie and your sensitive treatment of our loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. For many of us in Arizona, even those not in the path of this fire, it will be difficult to see the film and impossible to see the film without tears.

  2. Bill, have you satisfied all of the questions you have about the Yarnell fire and the conditions which led to their deaths? If so is there one (or more) report(s) you could recommend to me that I could read that will help me understand?

    I could not watch a movie at this point no matter how sensitively it portrays the events of this painful loss.

    I appreciate your work and how you express it more than any words can truly describe.

    Thank you for your reply.

  3. Though I’m at least as cautious as you are, Bill, about how this film will portray what happened (and what we don’t know happened), I’m just slightly bugged by this one line of yours: “And, the objective of the makers of the project, Black Label Media, Columbia Pictures, and Sony, is to make money.”

    I see what you’re saying there. But back when you worked on an IMT it may have been accurate to say your objective was to make money, but that would have been only just barely accurate. You had lots of other objectives while doing your job.

  4. I take Bill to be saying that the profit motive in a movie can lead writers, directors, and producers to value a storyline that abandons truth for something that will sell better. But that’s just my view, Bill can speak for himself.

    I’m concerned this movie will sell the idea that the right thing to do was to leave the black and head through the green to protect structures. I want to be wrong about this.

  5. I think the big question is if and how the film will deal with the most sensitive questions about the fire: Did Eric Marsh make a serious mistake (violating multiple rules of firefighting) in leading his crew into the box canyon? Was there an argument between Marsh and Steed about descending into the canyon, that Brendan McDonough is not telling us about? Why did Mike Dudley choose to ignore the email from Dave Provencio and quash any inquiry into whether Eric Marsh had a history of risky decisions? Perhaps the film will just ignore all this. On the other hand, Josh Brolin has a colorful personal history similar to Eric Marsh. Perhaps he will play it true.

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