Errors in a review of a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The article below was written by John N. Maclean and Holly Neill.

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The Wall Street Journal and Fire

By John Maclean and Holly Neill

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, about hotshot culture and the Yarnell Hill Fire, has been reviewed in the Saturday, May 23, edition of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Yost, who is identified as a firefighter and paramedic from Highwood, Illinois. The review makes a number of errors and misleading assertions about fire policy and the Yarnell Hill Fire independent of the material in Dickman’s book. Journal reviews receive respectful attention, but the review is wrong on so many points that it should be answered in a timely fashion–Maclean is preparing a review of Dickman’s book for the Journal of Forestry, but that won’t appear for several months.

Yost writes: “The policy of letting low burns do their work was in place until the 1980s, when environmentalists began lobbying for letting underbrush and tracts of forest go uncut, unmanaged and uncleared by small fires. The result was denser forests and forest beds of virtual kindling.”

Response: As every student of wildfire knows, after the Big Burn of 1910 the Forest Service developed a policy, in force for many decades, to put out all fires by 10 AM the morning after they were spotted.

Yost writes: “The Yarnell assignment came on a Sunday, normally a day off for the crew. The fire, started by lightning the day before…”

Response: The fire was started Friday, June 28, 2013, two days before the fatalities occurred on Sunday.

Yost writes: “When the Granite Mountain crew arrived, the flames were closing in on the small town of Yarnell.”

Response: When the Granite Mountain crew arrived on Sunday morning, the flames, which were far from Yarnell, were headed north and away from the town, toward Peeples Valley.

Yost writes that the lookout, Brendan McDonough, was in his fourth season.

Response: McDonough was in the beginning of his third season.

Yost writes that when the fire turned toward Yarnell, in the afternoon, McDonough “was no longer in a position to see what was going on and warn his crewmates.”

Response: McDonough reported to Jesse Steed, acting Granite Mountain Superintendent (normally assistant superintendent) that he could see that the fire had reached his trigger point and he was departing, which he did. At that point, photo and other evidence proves that Steed and the other hotshots could see exactly what the fire was doing.

Yost writes that Eric Marsh, (normally the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots), was “attached to the command staff on the day of the Yarnell fire, he was at first stationed in a makeshift outpost along a highway.”

Response: Marsh was never stationed at a makeshift outpost. He led the crew to the fire by scouting ahead and flagging an upward route. As far as being “attached to the command staff,” Marsh was made division Alpha supervisor and performed that duty in the field.

Yost writes: “The Granite Mountain crew had left the black and were working on the side of a hill, a dangerous position, Mr. Dickman explains, because it put them in danger of the fire coming down on top of them.

Response: The hotshots were digging direct handline, with one foot in the black, on the side of the hill. There was risk of the fire coming up to them from below, not coming down on top of them from the black above.

Yost writes: “Some investigators have speculated that, when the wind reversed, sending flames speeding toward the firefighters, they made a desperate attempt to get to a nearby horse farm and just didn’t make it.”

Response: No serious investigator has made that charge. It is agreed, and supported by photo and recorded radio exchanges as well as interview accounts, that the hotshots deliberately left their position and headed toward the ranch, which was identified as a safety zone. The ranch is not a horse farm: it is owned by Lee and DJ Helm who keep pets, including miniature horses, donkeys and shelter animals.

Yost writes about the fatalities, “In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late.”

Response: Firefighters work as crews, not as teams. It took an hour and 43 minutes, or 103 minutes, from the time Eric Marsh said over the radio that the crew was deploying until a medic reached the deployment site, according to official investigation records.

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The book review in the Wall Street Journal can be seen HERE, but you generally have to be a paid subscriber to view it. However, mobile phone users can sometimes read it without a subscription.

John N. Maclean has written several books about wildland fire, including “Fire on the Mountain”, “Fire and Ashes”, and “The Thirtymile Fire”. His most recent book, “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57″, is slated to be made into a movie. Currently he is working on a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire.

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“Wildfire”, by Mary Lowry

Wildfire book by Mary P. Lowry

Mary P. Lowry, author of “Wildfire: a novel”.

We ran across this photo on Twitter that was apparently taken at a presentation by Mary Pauline Lowry about her new book, Wildfire: a novel. Seeing that it is due to be released on October 7, we found the author’s web site and were impressed by the blurbs about the book written by some well known authors, including Anthony Swofford (Jarhead), James C. Moore (Bush’s Brain), and the less well known but bearer of fire credentials, Murry A. Taylor (Jumping Fire).

Then we looked at Ms. Lowry’s bio and found that she worked for two seasons on the Pike Hotshots in Colorado.

Here is how the book is described at Amazon:

Julie has an obsession with fire that began after her parents died when she was twelve years old. Her pyromania leads her to take an unlikely job as a forest firefighter on an elite, Type 1 “Hotshot” crew of forest firefighters who travel the American West battling wildfires. The only woman on the twenty person crew, Julie struggles both to prove her worth and find a place of belonging in the dangerous, insular, and very masculine world of fire. As her season “on the line” progresses so do her relationships with the strange and varied cast of characters that make up her hotshots team—and she learns what it means to put your life on the line for someone else.

Wildfire is a tough, gritty, and fascinating story from an exciting new voice in American fiction. Fans of the movie Backdraft or Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild will enjoy this fast paced debut.

The book is available at Amazon.

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The experiences of a female wildland firefighter in the 1970s

In April we published an excerpt from a book by Linda M. Strader, Summers of Fire: A Memoir, which is about her experience as a wildland firefighter. Today we have an article written by her about what it was like to be one of the few female wildland firefighters during her seven seasons that began in 1976.

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At the naïve age of twenty, I accepted my first firefighting position on the Nogales District of the Coronado National Forest in 1976. Although I knew what the position entailed, I didn’t know for sure what it would be like. However, I wanted this job, and figured the biggest challenge would be the hard physical work.

When I arrived at Florida Ranger Station (pronounced Flor-ee-da) as the only woman on a ten-person suppression crew, my supervisor scrutinized my petite frame and long blond hair. After shaking my hand, he checked my palm for calluses. Then he reached to squeeze my upper arm. While he did this, I smiled, thinking, he doesn’t think I’m strong enough! Immediately I knew I had to prove him wrong.

Linda Strader and Smokey

Smokey and Linda Strader, at the end of her first fire season in 1976.

Soon it became quite apparent I would have to prove to all the men on my crew that I could handle the work, but only by working twice as hard to be accepted. However, it turned out even that wasn’t enough. By mid-summer, many of men on the crew made it perfectly clear they didn’t want me there. They harassed me, made sarcastic and snide remarks, told me I was a burden. At first devastated by the painful comments, I considered giving up. Instead, I persevered. I truly wanted this job.

Over the next two summers, I continued to work hard, standing up to the criticism from, and forming relationships with, the men on my crew. We shared the adventures of a lifetime; from a 50,000 acre wildfire in Northern California, to protecting the city of Flagstaff from burning to the ground. We had fun, too. We built trails and fence, laughed a lot, had water fights, shared secrets, fell in love. The supervisor who doubted me became my best ally.

After three fire seasons, I felt confident I’d proven myself. Then I found out that changing attitudes is not that easy, when I was denied a position on the Catalina Hotshots because I was female. Furious, I filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, only to have it dismissed owing to lack of proof. This injustice only fueled my determination.
Mid-way into my fourth summer with the Forest Service, my supervisor delivered devastating news—the district labeled me a troublemaker for filing that EEO complaint, and I found myself blacklisted. Instead of giving up, I switched to the Bureau of Land Management for the next two summers. First I accept a position in Alaska, where I battled mosquitoes more than fires, and faced life-endangering events – not from fire – but from antics perpetuated by my lunatic boss. Next I took a job in Colorado, gaining confidence as I collected tree harvesting data in the Durango area.

Missing the excitement of firefighting, I returned to the Forest Service in 1982, finally becoming a Hotshot on the crew that denied me the position four years earlier. Unfortunately, an injury ended my career.

What is still amazing to me, is that over thirty years later, not a whole lot has changed. Women still struggle to be accepted in traditional men’s jobs, including the military. While dangerous work isn’t for everyone, I think it’s a personal choice. Everyone should have the chance to pursue whatever it is they love to do.

Follow the progress of my book: Summers of Fire: A memoir at http://summersoffirebook.blogspot.com

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Book excerpt: Summers of Fire

We are privileged today to publish an excerpt from a book being written by Linda M. Strader about her experience as a wildland firefighter, which began on a 10-person suppression crew on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.

The nineteen-year-old woman, strong willed and adventurous, stepped into history when she applied for a position as a Forest Service firefighter in 1976, one year after the organization opened its doors to allow women on fire crews.

Ms. Strader is now a Landscape Architect in southern Arizona. Although she enjoys her current profession, she still remembers her days as a firefighter as the best times of her life.

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SUMMERS OF FIRE; A MEMOIR

By Linda Strader

(A PORTION OF CHAPTER 3)

Anticipation grew daily among the crew. It proved hard for me to be patient. I felt ready! The practice fire had me raring to go to a real one, but no matter how much training they drilled into us, I figured nothing would totally prepare me for the real thing.

Linda Strader and Smokey

Smokey and Linda Strader, at the end of her first fire season in 1976.

The morning of June 2nd, at five-thirty a.m., I lay in bed, awake, listening to the calls of mourning doves. “Coo-ah … coo-coo-coo” echoed in the dawn. Such a sad sound. No wonder they call them mourning doves. They sound like they’re crying. I listened intently, trying to determine how many doves I heard, and where their calls were coming from. Gradually, I recognized a new sound; the sound of gravel crunching under feet in the driveway, coming closer to my open bedroom window. The footsteps stopped.

Glenn’s deep voice came through the screen, “Linda? We have a fire.”

Oh my God, this is it!!

Suddenly wide awake, I bounded out of bed and replied in a shaky voice, “Okay, be right there!”
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Book published about Esperanza Fire

The Esperanza Fire, book cover
The book that John N. Maclean has been working on for years about the Esperanza Fire has been published. Titled The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, it covers the 2006 wildfire that Raymond Oyler lit which raced up a canyon in southern California and overran the five-person crew of U.S. Forest Service engine 57. All five crewmembers, who were protecting an unoccupied house, were killed. Oyler was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder, 20 counts of arson, and 17 counts of using an incendiary device to start fires. He was sentenced to death.

The firefighters who died were engine Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser, 44, of Idyllwild; engine operator Jess McLean, 27, of Beaumont; assistant engine operator Jason McKay, 27, of Phelan; firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, 20, of San Jacinto; and firefighter Pablo Cerda, 23, of Fountain Valley.

This extraordinary event, and the trial that followed, had a significant impact on many of us in the fire service.

Mr. Maclean’s other books about wildland fire, include Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon FireThe Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal, and Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire (out of print but may be available at your local book store or at Mr. Maclean’s web site).

The new book, The Esperanza Fire, can be purchased now directly from Mr. Maclean’s web site, and each book will be personally autographed by him. It is also available at Amazon, but without the autograph. It may not be at your local book store until February 12.

If Mr. Maclean’s other books and the excerpt below are any indication, this new one will be difficult to put down.

With the permission of Mr. Maclean and the publisher, Counterpoint Press, we have an excerpt from the book below.

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Introduction to the excerpt, written by John N. Maclean:

Just after midnight on October 26, 2006, an arsonist set a bundle of matches and a Marlboro cigarette, held together by a rubber band, into a patch of grass along a remote roadway in the Banning Pass, which connects Los Angeles with the desert communities to the east. The arsonist drove away, the cigarette burned down and ignited the matches, and the grass caught fire. That was the start of the Esperanza Fire, which eventually burned over 40,000 acres and destroyed over 30 homes and other structures. It also claimed the lives of the five-man crew of Forest Service Engine 57. The arson investigation led to the capital murder trial of Raymond Oyler, who was found guilty of arson and murder and sentenced to death.
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Start a wildfire, pay for it

People who start wildfires should be held accountable.

There is a growing intolerance by both legal courts and citizens for wildfire arson, whether the start is deliberate or negligent or just plain accidental. The Washington Post recently reported on a legal case in Arizona, in which a couple of young men got off easy for their role in starting off a gi-normous fire, the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire. The Prescott Daily Courier editorial called it “Two days in jail. Five years probation. A lifetime of regret.”

Right on.

In an opinion piece in the Seattle Times, wildland fire author John Maclean makes a strong point that legal and public opinions have shifted over the years about just how responsible a person is when a wildland fire is started — intentionally or accidentally. As he notes in his op-ed piece, back in 1953 a grand jury in Willows, California, refused to even indict an admitted arsonist on charges after he torched off what became the Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest. That fatal fire burned not far from the current North Pass Fire, and the Rattlesnake Fire killed 15 firefighters, most of them “missionary firefighters” who lived not far south of there.

As Maclean detailed in his now out-of-print book Fire and Ashes, Stan Pattan, the son of a respected Forest Service engineer, “had not intended to kill anyone,” or so the locals said. In those days, though, setting fires in the wildlands to clear brush, improve hunting opportunities, or maybe even get a little extra work on a going fire was a common practice — nothing to be ashamed of, much less illegal.

Stan Pattan did it, but he did do a little prison time. He certainly wasn’t charged with murder, like Raymond Oyler was for his part in the wildfire arson that started the 2006 Esperanza Fire that wiped out a 5-person USFS engine crew. That whole sordid tale is the subject of Maclean’s next book, which will be released this winter by Counterpoint Press.

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