Helping others is one way Amanda Marsh deals with the loss of her firefighter husband

Eric Marsh was the Crew Superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; he and 18 other members of the crew were entrapped and killed on an Arizona wildfire in 2013.

Four years ago her best friend and husband was killed on a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona along with 18 other firefighters ranging in age from 21 to 36. In the years since June 30, 2013 she has experienced what every spouse dreads or does not want to think about — losing your partner in life. Below, Amanda Marsh reveals what she went through and what she found on the other side, including a way to help others who find themselves in a similar dark place.

Bill Gabbert

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By Amanda Marsh

Adaptation has become the word that best describes my life post Yarnell Hill Fire.  I woke the morning of June 30th, 2013 with a mind to do my regular Sunday chores.  Feed horses and dogs, clean up the house and work a little with a client’s horse in the afternoon.  When I lay my head down that night in my best friend’s bed, my life had been completely shattered.  Every time I tried to close my eyes all I could see were 19 bodies on the hill and one of them belonged to my husband.  The body I knew so well.  My best friend’s Saint Bernard kept putting his huge nose in my face until I finally got out of bed and walked onto the back porch.

Amanda and Eric Marsh
Amanda and Eric. Photo supplied by Amanda Marsh.

My parents were trying to get to Prescott from southern California but had been rerouted all the way through Phoenix because of the fire.  I sat on the porch and started calling every number in my phone, but everyone was asleep.  It was midnight and their lives weren’t shattered like mine.  Their husband’s body wasn’t lying on Yarnell Hill with the life ravaged out of it.

I sat with my knees pulled up to my chin and I cried and I cried and I cried.  Was this possibly real?  Was I having a very bad dream I would wake from soon?  I looked out over the darkness of Prescott and I wondered how in the world I would ever get through losing so many amazing souls.  How could Jesse be gone and Clay?  How could Travy and Turby be dead?  These were the men who fueled many of Eric’s stories about his fire life.  These were the men I knew would be there in a heartbeat if they could, how could they be gone?  I was 38 years old, and in the blink of an eye, the change of the wind, I had become the eldest widow of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Eric Marsh FoundationOf course, I didn’t realize it then, but that night was the start of the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.  That night and the horrid days and nights that followed.  My painful experiences, burying my husband, the funerals of our friends, wanting to die, fighting to stay sober, the anger that swept through me and never left, pushing everyone away, fighting to stay in control of my life, fighting, fighting, fighting.  These experiences pulled me in the direction of wanting to be of service to others who were going through the same thing.  I needed to help others in the wildland community and I needed to do it in my husband’s name.

I wanted to create a legacy of giving in Eric’s name because that is who he was in life.  Our shared sober life meant that both of us had done things in our pasts we were not proud of and one of the ways Eric chose to make those wrongs right was to give people a chance to prove themselves on the crew.  He gave jobs to people others would never have even considered.  Eric had been given a second and third chance in his fire life and he needed to pay that forward, and he did, often.  I was their advocate, pulling for the underdogs through the fire season.  Losing that way of life hit me so hard and I needed to create something good, I needed something amazing in my life or I was not going to be able to hold on.  I needed something to work on, I needed to watch something grow out of the ash.  I needed to turn my pain, my empathy and compassion and my experiences into something positive to help others.

The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters came into fruition and I began raising money to donate to next of kin of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty.  One of the first next of kin we helped was Colleen Ricks.  Her husband Brandon was a helicopter pilot who perished on a prescribed fire when his helicopter went down in 2015.  I didn’t have Colleen’s contact information and so I called the church where Brandon’s services were just held and spoke to the pastor.  He gave me Colleen’s number.  I dialed the number, expecting to leave a message but a woman answered.  Her voice was heavy and sad, I knew it must be her.  I began to cry.  Through my tears I told her who I was and why I was calling and we stayed on the phone for a long time, both of us crying for each other, ourselves and for Brandon and Eric.  To this day Colleen is one of my best friends.  We understand each other in ways only widows can.

Our mission is simple: To assist next-of-kin of wildland firefighters killed in the line of duty and wildland firefighters with PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been a long standing companion in my life.  From my first tragic loss in 1983 when my best friends were brutally murdered to my loss in the Yarnell Hill Fire, PTSD has never left my side.  I have had to adapt to its presence and get help to overcome the sometimes debilitating effects of its uninvited companionship.  I have a heart for others living with PTSD and for the families who surround these individuals.  The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters has been able to help wildland firefighters with PTSD by paying for their treatment and also by utilizing my history to lend emotional support to individuals who need it, both family of and wildland firefighters themselves.  My 11 years of sobriety has also helped wildland firefighters struggling with drug and alcohol problems.  I want to be of service and I want my experiences to give strength and hope to others.  What good is any of it if it is only helpful to me?

We believe there is so much need in the wildland community that there is room for us all to help each other and to give to each other.  Our foundation supports having many organizations that support and administer to the wildland community, the more the better.   We are always looking for volunteers to help us at events and for those wishing to have events for us.

The Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters comes from the heart of Prescott, from the home base of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.  The place Eric and I met and fell in love, where my recovery and my life began.  Where I buried my husband and my friends, where my community of firefighters, police officers and all other first responders have picked me up time and time again.  Prescott is our home and we are proud to continue to serve our community and to grow outward from here.  Prescott is our home base and our foundation is important to the greater community of Prescott.  The Yarnell Hill Fire became a world event, but the Eric Marsh Foundation has grown here in this community which his given so much.  This community lost the guys, too.  They felt the deep impact of the loss and they cried with us.  We matter to our community and to the wildland community.

Although we call ourselves the Eric Marsh Foundation, we respect all the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots because they were all amazing men and deserve recognition for their lives and for their ultimate sacrifice.  We are united behind all wildland firefighters, first responders and all their families.  We have chosen to use the Granite Mountain Hotshot logo to reflect this respect and this love that our foundation has for the entire Granite Mountain Hotshot crew and all wildland firefighters.

If you need us, we are here.  We love our wildland community and we are staying strong to be of service in the best possible way.  We understand what you are going through and we are here for you and for your families.  Please visit our website: Ericmarshfoundation.org and follow us on Facebook at Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots live on in our hearts forever, they taught me so much, and they always guide my path as I make decisions that continue to honor them and their values.  Esse Quam Videri– To be, rather than to seem.  For them, with them, love them, we will honor them forever.

Granite Mountain logoAndrew Ashcraft – Age: 29
Robert Caldwell – Age: 23
Travis Carter – Age: 31
Dustin Deford – Age: 24
Christopher MacKenzie – Age: 30
Eric Marsh – Age: 43
Grant McKee – Age: 21
Sean Misner – Age: 26
Scott Norris – Age: 28
Wade Parker – Age: 22
John Percin- Age: 24
Anthony Rose- Age: 23
Jesse Steed- Age: 36
Joe Thurston- Age: 32
Travis Turbyfill – Age: 27
William Warneke – Age: 25
Clayton Whitted – Age: 28
Kevin Woyjeck – Age: 21
Garret Zuppiger – Age: 27

Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer

A behind the scenes story of action photography at a fast-moving wildfire in southern California.

Pilot Fire
A dozer tender on the Pilot Fire August 7, 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Since Jeff Zimmerman retired as a fire captain he spends much of his time photographing fires in California, getting up close and personal with the action. The state has a different, some would say more enlightened, way of handling the media at emergencies and disasters than some other areas. There are few restrictions as long as they do not interfere with incident operations (see California Penal Code 409.5d).

Jeff covered the Pilot Fire that so far has burned almost 8,000 acres in southern California near Crestline. He was there for the first two days, took these photos, and wrote down some of his thoughts.

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By Jeff Zimmerman

During the late afternoon of August 7, 2016, I received word from Tod Sudmeier about a fast moving wildfire along Highway 138 and Pilot rock in San Bernardino County. The first reports were that the fire was not accessible so I did not pay much attention to the pager. An hour after the initial alert rang out, the fire was reported to be a 1,000 acres and moving towards Highway 173 in Summit Valley. With this new information I responded from Towsley Park, cutting my nature hike short.

There was sweltering heat once again in Southern California, which appears to be the new norm, as monsoon moisture had moved to the east and relative humidity was rock bottom. The skies above the desert were clear blue but temperatures were soaring to triple digits.

Pilot Fire
PIlot Fire August 7 2016. Jeff Zimmerman photo.

Once again responding up the long trek of Highway 14 as I have numerous times before, I went east onto Pearblossom Highway and over the summit to Highway 138. A large plume of smoke was clearly visible — another major emergency wildfire threatening homes, chewing through decades old brush, threatening human and animal life. Insatiable flames were bearing down on rural ranches as people packed up livestock in trailers to get away from the menacing flames. Air tankers roared into the valley to cut off the advancing fire from the 17525 block of Highway 173. The fire was marching northeast at a rapid clip, dozers frantically working the fire line to halt advancing flames, but with little success.

This had the makings of yet another dangerous fire, probably human caused, possibly by negligence, hopefully not by arson. I continued through the flame front as the fire jumped Highway 173 and into the spillways of Lake Silverwood. Always moving to stay ahead of the flames, only powered by pure adrenalin and Gatorade, I reluctantly moved up canyon, seemingly to dance with the red devil. By nightfall it was evident that the fire was creeping up the steep brush covered desert slopes moving towards Lake Arrowhead up old Highway 173 into no man’s land. Old Highway 173 is now abandoned and will tear the front end off your vehicle off if you attempt to traverse it.

By twilight it looked as if a nuclear bomb had dropped over Summit Valley and ash was raining down on Hesperia nine miles to the north. Curious onlookers were wondering just how far this fire would travel and could it make it into Hesperia proper. Day was turning to night so a few more hours of shooting then it was time to call it quits.

At 11 p.m. I realized I needed to leave the scene, upload a few images, and get a few hours of rest. By 1 a.m. I arrived home, transferred photos into my computer, took a quick shower and went off to bed. Oh, how I know too well, the magic hour of 2 a.m.; finally some badly needed rest on an old lumpy mattress. I always hate those nagging heat cramps being so dehydrated; now the push is on to get fluids back into the body.

At 6 a.m. I was back at my daily chores, watering the crops, charging camera batteries, double-fisting coffee, grabbing a quick bite to eat, and then out the front door. I met Bernie Deyo in Palmdale at Ave S Park-and-Ride and it was off to the races again. The smoke was already billowing along Highway 173 at 10 a.m. We made a quick stop at Highway 138 and 15 freeways to stretch, pick up lunch at Del Taco. Then it was back onto the firelines.

By noon the fire was rolling, boiling behind homes. Structure protection was now in place and San Bernardino County firefighters from Medic Engine 224 were hunkering down behind a home with a charged 1 ½ inch hose line trying to protect the residence from fire. We parked facing out on a small dirt driveway, ready to escape the flames at a moment’s notice.

PIlot Fire Continue reading “Two days in the life of a wildfire photographer”

Six students receive scholarships honoring victims of Yarnell Hill Fire

Intended for one recipient, unexpected donated funds allowed six students to receive scholarships.

Photo above: left to right starting at the top: Tri-City College Prep Winners: Hannah Leber, MaKaylee Call and Shelbyrae Myers. Bagdad High School Winners: Alexandra Provencio and Marissa Rottnek. Prescott High School winner: Morgan Feingold.

(Guest post written by Katie Knoll)

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. (May 24, 2016) – Six Yavapai-area high school students each received $2,000 Grant McKee Service and Leadership Scholarships during May’s North Star Youth Partnership’s Celebration of Community breakfast.  The annual breakfast recognizes North Star’s teen leaders, programs, community partners, and volunteers. Originally intended as a single $2,000 scholarship, additional unexpected funds from the Taylor Family Foundation and the American Legion in Prescott allowed for each of the six finalists to win a scholarship.

“Seeing the shock and joy on the girls’ faces was priceless, and it was so much fun to have an ‘Oprah moment’ as everyone got a scholarship!” says Diane DeLong, North Star’s Senior Program Manager.

Grant Quinn McKee was one of the 19 firefighters who perished in the Yarnell fire in 2013, and he will forever be remembered for his service to the community, his leadership skills, and his desire to make the world a better place.  At Prescott High School, McKee was a member of North Star Youth Partnership’s Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) Program.  This scholarship, in its third year, honors McKee’s memory along with his cousin Robert Caldwell, a fellow Hot Shot and leader who also perished in the fire.

To qualify for the scholarship, students were required to be members of a PAL school program, which help teens learn skills to make a positive difference in their schools, community, and their own life.  PAL trains teens in communication and facilitation skills, active listening, decision-making, and problem solving, and PAL also exposes youth to service projects that impact their schools and communities.

The scholarship winners are Shelbyrae Myers, MaKaylee Call, and Hannah Leber, each of Tri-City College Prep; Morgan Feingold of Prescott High School; and Alexandra Provencio and Marissa Rottnek of Bagdad High School.  Each young woman wowed the scholarship review panel with her scholastic achievements, extracurricular activities, and community service.

Applications for the 2017 Grant McKee and Robert Caldwell Service and Leadership Scholarship will be accepted through North Star beginning January 2017.

For more information about North Star Youth Partnership and the Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) program or the Grant McKee/Robert Caldwell Service and Leadership Scholarship, please contact Diane DeLong, Senior Program Manager, at ddelong@cc-az.org.

Founded in 1933, Catholic Charities provides care for the vulnerable of all faiths in Phoenix and northern Arizona through programs in foster care, early start education, housing, veteran services, refugee relocation and poverty reduction. Learn more by visiting www.catholiccharitiesaz.org. Social connections include www.facebook.com/CatholicCharitiesAZ and twitter.com/CCArizona.

Wildland fire emissions worse in polluted areas

A University of California Riverside study shows biomass grown in areas of poor air quality releases more pollutants when burned than biomass grown in clean air.

Above: Smoky conditions on the Pleasant Valley Prescribed Fire west of Pringle, SD, March 10, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

When plant matter burns, it releases a complex mixture of gases and aerosols into the atmosphere. In forests subject to air pollution, these emissions may be more toxic than in areas of good air quality, according to a new study by the University of California, Riverside and the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station.

The results suggest biomass burning of polluted forest fuels may exacerbate poor air quality—and related health concerns—in some of the world’s most heavily polluted areas, among them, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which is expected to suffer from more wildfires as drought conditions continue.

The study, which was led by Akua Asa-Awuku, a researcher at the Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) at UC Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, was published March 2 in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

As people burn fuels—in cars, power plants and factories—nitrogen is released into the atmosphere and absorbed by plants. While essential for plant growth, an over-abundance of this biologically-available nitrogen can result in ‘nitrogen saturation,’ a phenomenon previously reported by Forest Service scientists in Riverside.  Nitrogen saturation can cause a cascade of adverse effects including a decrease in biodiversity, changes in plant species, soil acidification and water contamination.

In this paper, UCR and Forest Service researchers teamed up to explore a previously unstudied aspect of nitrogen saturation: its effect on the gases and aerosols released during burning of forest fuels from an area experiencing nitrogen saturation.

Scientists conducted the study in the San Bernardino Mountains, a 60-mile stretch of federal and private forest land to the east of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Since the pollution concentration decreases from west to east, as the distance from Los Angeles increases, the forests offered a rare opportunity to compare emissions from wildland fuels subjected to different levels of chronic air pollution. At sites 55 miles apart, the researchers collected recently deposited material from the forest floor, called litter, which is a primary fuel in these forests. Both sites have a similar mixture of conifer tree species, and, at the time of collection, had experienced similar temperatures and rainfall.

As shown in previous studies, the litter from the polluted site, which had endured high levels of atmospheric nitrogen oxides and ozone, had higher nitrogen content than litter from the clean site. The researchers then burned the litter in controlled lab tests, collected the emissions and analyzed them. The results showed:

  • Fuel from the polluted site released more nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of smog and ozone. In some cases, polluted fuels released 30 percent more nitrogen oxides than fuels from the clean site.
  • Polluted fuels released more small fine particles (PM<2.5), which are known cause of respiratory health problems.
  • The composition of the particles from polluted regions were different; they were less likely to evaporate but underwent similar atmospheric processing as emissions from clean fuels exposed to sunlight.

Continue reading “Wildland fire emissions worse in polluted areas”

Only you…

Fire in the Lake San Antonio area of Monterey County, California, August, 2009. Photo by Vern Fisher.

The following article was contributed by Frank Carroll.

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Only You…

For the United States Forest Service and the other major federal, state and local wildland fire agencies, the music is playing the band.  It worked OK for the Grateful Dead.  It’s a different story when it comes to developing and conducting wildland fire policy.

It may surprise no one to discover that wildland fires are bigger, more costly, more damaging, and more out of control than in any decade before the present, all the way back to 1910.  There was so much large fire on the ground in the 2015 fire season we ran out of superlatives to describe how big and bad they were.  In many cases the fires burned together forming “charismatic megafires” of untold destruction, sometimes because we had no choice.

Author Stephen Pyne, in an often brutally honest book about where we’ve been and where we’re headed with fire management in America, observes that fire is managing us; we’re not managing fire (Between Two Fires 2015).

What began in the late 1960s as a scarcely heard warning siren that wildfire should be left to its own devices on certain wild lands (prescribed natural fire or “let burn” fires pioneered by the National Park Service) became, by 2000, a five alarm screaming wail heard round the world.  Our best laid plans have come to naught.  We are caught in a blizzard of falling ash, awash in a river of flying embers, and blinded by the smoke.  It is clear that no human power will stop the rising tide of flames in wildlands and Red Zone suburbs where 10 percent of our homes are, no matter what the cost.

How we got here is a tale worth reading.  Where we’re headed is into the fog of war, but not without guideposts and markers.  Based on the very sound idea that fire should play a natural role in natural resource management, agencies and scientists spent the past 50 years trying to work out how to get it done.  And they had help.  The Nature Conservancy can field its own firefighters and burn its own ground.  Environmentalists looked for ways to burn without having to pay for the work of preparing and herding fires, and without the expertise to help.  Their grand experiment in the theology/ecology of hope over the last 50 years accelerated the fuels problem. The fuels situation is also exacerbated in places where logging results in activity fuels with resulting backlogs needing treatment and feeding wildfires.

Continue reading “Only you…”

Exercise physiologist to recommend tougher work capacity test for hot shots

The following article was contributed by Rae Brooks.

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Hotshots could face a tougher work-capacity test in the future, including carrying a heavier pack over hilly, instead of level, terrain and performing pushups to demonstrate upper-body strength.

Dr. Joe Domitrovich, an exercise physiologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology & Development Center in Missoula, Mont., will recommend this summer to the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies that the work-capacity test for hotshot crews be upgraded.

“I don’t think I’ve had a hotshot tell me that they don’t agree with a fitness requirement that’s a little more strenuous,” said Domitrovich, himself a former hotshot. “They feel it will better prepare young firefighters for what the physiological demands of the job actually are.”

The new test would require a hotshot to carry a 55-pound pack over mountainous terrain in a time calibrated according to the elevation gain. Domitrovich hasn’t yet finalized the pushup requirement, but expects it will be “in the mid-teens.”

The current arduous pack test requires firefighters to walk a three-mile flat course, carrying a 45-pound pack, in 45 minutes or less. There is no pushup requirement.

Although more than 20 incident command positions currently require the arduous category test, the recommendation for the new test will apply only to hotshots. Hotshots already rank among the fittest people in the country, placing within the top 10 to 15 percent of national fitness norms. Some female hotshots rank in the top 5 percent.

Continue reading “Exercise physiologist to recommend tougher work capacity test for hot shots”