Lone survivor from Yarnell Hill Fire publishes book

In “My Lost Brothers” Brendan McDonough writes about his journey of becoming a wildland firefighter, and the loss of his 19 “brothers” in 2013 on the fire in Arizona.

Above: Most, but not all, of the members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots at the world’s largest alligator juniper tree in 2013. The crew protected it while fighting the Doce Fire near Prescott, Arizona about two weeks before the tragedy at Yarnell. Photo by Chris Mackenzie.

Last August I interviewed Brendan McDonough, the only firefighter of the 20-person Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that survived the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona in June, 2013

He told me that he was working on a book about his life – his background, drug problems, burglary conviction, and becoming a father at age 19. “That’s what I’m saying in the book,” he said. “I’m sharing the stories and the great memories I have of them, and I’m telling my stories about Yarnell – what I saw, how I felt, and what I think happened.”

He said working on the book was therapeutic for him, collaborating with best-selling author Stephan Talty, author of A Captain’s Duty about Richard Phillips, captain of the MV Maersk Alabama that was captured by Somali pirates and later rescued by Navy SEALs.

My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor, is scheduled for release on May 3, 2016 but may be available before that in bookstores. After reading an advance copy, I found it to be an extremely personal account of Mr. McDonough’s life before becoming a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, his experiences while on the crew for three seasons, and how he dealt with the tragedy — the fire that killed 19 of his “brothers” on June 30, 2013.

The 20 men were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire near Yarnell, Arizona, 90 miles northwest of Phoenix that day. A passing thunderstorm created very strong outflow winds that suddenly changed the direction the fire was spreading, forcing it to make a right turn. The fire raced toward 19 men on the crew, trapping and killing them in a box canyon. Mr. McDonough survived because he was serving as a lookout in a location separate from the others. He also had a close call as the blaze burned toward him, but was rescued by the crew Superintendent on another Hotshot crew who gave him a ride out of danger on a small utility vehicle.

I was hoping that the book would reveal more about WHY the 19 men left the safety of a previously burned area (the “black”) and hiked cross-country through dense unburned brush where they were entrapped by the fire. That is a crucial piece of the puzzle not yet revealed to the public. A piece that could add to the body of knowledge about firefighting that could be a valuable lesson learned — possibly preventing similar fatalities.

But a clue was in our interview eight months ago when he said:

I would never … if my brothers did make mistakes, I would never keep that a secret to put in a book. There’s nothing that is going to be in there that people don’t already know.

And he was true to his word. While he revealed a great deal about his private life, there is little about what happened on June 30, 2013 that has not already come out in the investigations, reports, and the video recordings made by various firefighters that day that included audio of radios used by firefighters. While there are many quotes of radio conversations in the book, most of them appear to have been previously revealed in the recordings. There are no earth-shaking revelations about who made the crucial decisions, or why, that led to the Granite Mountain Hotshots being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mr. McDonough wrote in the book:

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Book: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian WoodMany wildland firefighters live in areas where firewood is available, as long as you have a permit and know how to use a chain saw. The Guardian has an interesting review of a new book about a very old subject, collecting and processing your own firewood.

Below is an excerpt from a review of Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by by Lars Mytting.

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“…Now, at last, wood is being rehabilitated. More than that: it is suddenly fashionable, and Norwegian Wood has become one of the most uplifting publishing stories of 2015. A simple, elegant book about how to fell trees – about how to move the timber and then split and stack the logs in the most efficient, aesthetic ways – it has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It is one of those books, full of lush, earthy photos, about which people seem to become almost evangelical.

The reason for its appeal is clear: in this depressing age of bombs and bullets, of financial instability and screen-mediated reality, there is something honest, solid and reassuringly ancient about wood. As Lars Mytting says about the woodpile: “Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market. It won’t rust. It won’t sue for divorce. It just stands there and does one thing: it waits for winter. An investment account reminding you of all the hard work you’ve put into it.”

It helps that Mytting is able to put primitive yearnings into lyrical prose. He quotes beautiful poems, like one at the beginning of the book by Hans Børli: “The scent of fresh white wood / in the spring sap time: / as though life itself walked by you, / with dew in its hair.” And the fact that he is Norwegian gives him much authority and many anecdotes: in Norway, 25% of energy used to heat private homes comes from wood, and half of that wood is chopped by private individuals. It is a country obsessed by all aspects of firewood, and, as Mytting jokes, many weddings and funerals have seen heated arguments about the best make of axe, or whether wood should be stacked bark up or bark down…”

National Geographic interviews Stephen Pyne about pyrophobia

Michelle Nijhuis interviewed Stephen Pyne about wildland fire management in the United States and his book that was recently released. Below is an excerpt from the article in National Geographic in which the term “pyrophobia” is used.

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…In his new book Between Two Fires, Pyne examines the roots of the U.S. wildfire crisis. He finds that while the Forest Service and other agencies have long recognized that frequent, relatively small fires can reduce the risk of large, catastrophic burns, they have been unable to restore a natural cycle of fire to the forest.

Speaking from his home office in Arizona, Pyne reflected on this impasse. “If we keep fighting a war with fire, three things are going to happen,” he says. “We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, and we’re going to lose.”

Question: In the first half of the 20th century, you write, the U.S. Forest Service suffered from “pyrophobia”—it tried to suppress all wildfires. Where did that policy come from?

Pyne: The science of forestry grew up in temperate Europe—France and Germany particularly—and there, unlike most parts of the world, there’s no natural basis for fire. Fire was seen as a human problem, caused by people, and that attitude was exported to foresters in the United States.

In 1910, when the Forest Service was just a fledgling agency, a fire called the Big Blowup, or the Big Burn, blew over the Northern Rockies. It burned more than three million acres, and killed 78 firefighters in one afternoon. It traumatized the agency, scarring a whole generation of personnel. The Forest Service became convinced that if only it had the resources, it could control all fires…

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Last week at Wildfire Today we had an excerpt from the book, Between Two Fires.

Stephen Pyne releases book about the modern evolution of fire in Ameica

Stephen J. Pyne
Stephen J. Pyne

Stephen Pyne, prolific author about wildland fire world-wide, has released a book covering what he calls America’s fire revolution. Mr. Pyne had not written at length about fire management in the United States since 1980 when he published Fire in America: a Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.

Released in October, 2015 Between Two Fires: a Fire History of Contemporary America, overlaps with the earlier one by a few decades and chronicles the evolution, or “revolution” as he calls it, over the last 60 or so years.

Much of Mr. Pyne’s knowledge of wildland fire came from spending 15 seasons on the ground with the North Rim Longshots in Grand Canyon National Park. He explains that since 1980 most of his work has involved fire on other continents (six of them as a matter of fact) and he felt that his “stockpiled capital of experience has leached away”. He began to re-immerse himself in the current realm of wildfire in America, leading to this new book.

Much of the information and the examples given in this new effort focus on the U.S. Forest Service. He said it is because “it reflects reality”.

In 1960 the USFS dominated the American fire scene, it continued to be a major player throughout the fire revolution, and it remains the only institution whose actions routinely affect all the rest.

Mr. Pyne writes about a number of notable fires that over the last 60 years had major impacts on management, policy, and the public’s perception of wildfire. One of the more recent blazes was the 2011 Wallow Fire that started in eastern Arizona and spread into New Mexico burning over half a million acres.

Wallow Fire. Photo by Jason Coil
Wallow Fire, 2011. Photo by Jayson Coil.

Mr. Pyne writes about the Wallow Fire:

With spots starting three or four miles away, there was little to contain it. Fuels, terrain, suppression, all had to wait for the winds to subside before they could steer the front’s trajectory, The flames burned with the singular direction of a loosed arrow.

Lynn Biddison, who we called a legend in wildland fire, died October 19 following a vehicle accident. Mr. Pyne devoted a page to him in the book. We appreciated one Biddison quote, on a subject we have written about many times:

Fact that never changes: The safest and least costly fires are the ones that receive strong initial attack and are suppressed while still small.

Reprinted here with the publisher’s permission is the complete passage about Mr. Biddison:

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“…Consider the career of Lynn Biddison, who in 1960 accepted the fire control officer (FCO) position on the Cleveland National Forest. He already had 17 years of on-the-line firefighting experience and was a third-generation Forest Service fire officer. His grandfather had homesteaded near the Angeles National Forest and had became a forest guard at Bouquet Canyon, his father had worked up the ranks through the CCC fire program to become assistant FCO on the Angeles, and Lynn had begun work as a firefighter in 1943 at age 16.

Before he retired, Lynn Biddison had worked in nearly every position in the fire organization. In 1950 he was a crew foreman of the Chilao Hotshots in their second year, and he acceded to superintendent the next year. Then he supervised an inmate crew. He pioneered helijumping, the Southern California equivalent of smokejumping. Later, he was the Region 5 representative to the first national fire-behavior training course in Missoula in 1958. While on the Cleveland, he established the first standing forest-overhead teams, and he himself joined interregional teams. In 1968 he carried the California methods to the Southwest Region as regional fire director.

What he knew he learned early. His bosses were tough, direct, old-school bulls-of-the-woods and extraordinary teachers. “They were firm, they were fair, they knew what they wanted, and they knew their limitations. Their style was, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it, we will do it right, and do it now.’” You did your job. To illustrate, he recalls the 1952 Meadows fire on a Mt. San Gorgonio ridge at 10,000 feet amid Santa Ana winds. The district ranger pointed the fire out to them, and the Chilao Hotshots hiked in. They remained for 11 days. They had one blanket for every two crewmen, so they dug pits where they could light fires for cooking and sleeping. They had little food. Every few days a pack string would bring in water and rations.It was late October and “cold, cold, cold.” They stayed with the burn until it was dead out.

Thirteen years later Biddison returned to California as regional fire director. When mandatory retirement forced him out, he left with the exhortation to return to tried-and-true basics. That meant never having a fire, once contained, escape. It meant instilling a sense of urgency, critiquing actions on every fire regardless of size, and boring in and bearing down on standards, because high goals and hard work sparked pride. It meant “if the fire runs out, DO NOT GIVE UP—back up and start again.” Or simply, “FIGHT FIRE AGGRESSIVELY.”

In 1998 he distilled the lessons of his long career into one simple “fact that never changes: The safest and least costly fires are the ones that receive strong initial attack and are suppressed while still small.”  ”

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Between Two Fires, by Stephen J. Pyne, was published in October, 2015 by the University of Arizona Press.

Review of “On the Burning Edge”

John N. Maclean’s  review of the book, “On the Burning Edge”, was first printed in the “Journal of Forestry”, a publication of the Society of American Foresters. It is used with permission here.

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HOTSHOTS, MISSED SHOTS, AND WHERE’S THE FIRE?

On the Burning Edge. Kyle Dickman. 304 p. $26.00 (hardcover). Ballantine Books. 2015. ISBN: 978-0-55339-212-8.

Journal of Forestry 113

By John N. Maclean

Copyright © 2015 Society of American Foresters

A book written quickly in the wake of a major disaster, in this case the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, should be a first draft of history, a skeleton on which the reading public can rely, with adjustments as time brings more insight, reflection, and information.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, which cost the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is the worst disaster for an organized wildland fire crew in over a century, back to the Big Burn of 1910. Two years later, many questions remain unanswered: Why did the hotshots leave a safe place and descend into a box canyon where they were overwhelmed by a flame front? Why wasn’t the fire controlled in its early stages? Were supervisory personnel negligent? Why are the two official investigations, both by the state of Arizona, so radically different: one says there were no major mistakes; the other says there were many willful and serious ones.

The fire has been the subject of extensive media and Internet coverage. A massive, unprecedented quantity of audiovisual recordings made during the fire and other data provide a rich trove of factual material to consider.

The first book based on the fire appeared in May 2015: On the Burning Edge, by Kyle Dickman, who wrote about the event earlier for Outside Magazine. Dickman, who was a temporary firefighter with the Tahoe Hotshots for most of the 2006 season, spends the bulk of the book on hotshot culture and the experiences of the Granite Mountain Hotshots well before the Yarnell Hill Fire. He speed-wrote and reported the book on a tight, 16-month publisher’s deadline. “I’d wake up at six and type until 2 AM and find time for a nap and a run in between,” he has noted.

The book reads easily, but shows every sign of an overhasty attempt to capitalize on a human and natural disaster, for which the publisher should accept some responsibility. A marketing blurb claiming that the book is the “definitive” account of the Yarnell Hill Fire has done the author no favor. Even friendly reviewers on Amazon. com balk at that one.

The book contains far too many factual errors, several even corrected in second references. Dickman writes that his main source, Brendan McDonough, the lone surviving hotshot, was a rookie 4 years earlier, then later correctly states he was starting his third year as a hotshot. A short prologue says a middle school is “soon to catch fire,” and a very large air tanker (VLAT) “could unload thirty thousand gallons of fire retardant in a single drop.” Later, Dickman reports flames never touched the middle school and a VLAT can hold just over 11,000 gallons.

Important historical references can be vague: the first hotshot crews “emerged in the 1940s”; his benchmark for previous wildland firefighter deaths was “in the 1930s,” probably a reference to the Griffith Park Fire of 1933 in the city of Los Angeles, which killed 29 members of a road crew impressed into fighting the fire.

And why regularly overdramatize such an inherently dramatic event? A falling tree with only an 18-in. diameter lands with enough force to cause a minor earthquake: “Every hotshot on the line could feel the ground shake.” Alaska fires toss half-ton logs thousands of feet into the air. More significantly, a breathless telling of McDonough’s retreat from a lookout post doesn’t match the evidence or the account of the firefighter who picked him up.

Dickman has been criticized for inventing dialogue and thoughts for the lost crew in his magazine article and again in his book. In recounting a prior fire, for example, one hotshot who did not survive the Yarnell Hill Fire finds time for a quiet moment alone to “fantasize of past lovers” and “create and dispel” fears of losing a girlfriend. Young men do think in these terms, but the scene smacks of make-believe.

When he gets to the Yarnell Hill Fire, Dickman adds little to an understanding of this highly complex event with one potentially significant exception, about a vital radio conversation just before the hotshots left “good black” and headed for the box canyon. McDonough, who survived because he was detached as a lookout, has told his story in different versions to official investigators and others. What he had not done before Dickman’s book came out was to tell his story under oath, for litigation stemming from the fire.

In the book, McDonough exonerates Eric Marsh, Granite Mountain’s superintendent, from a much-rumored charge that he ordered his crew to pack up and leave the “good black” during a heated radio exchange with his No. 2, Jesse Steed. Dickman tells us McDonough, who overheard the relevant conversation, heard no quarrel and no dissenting voice. Whether that account holds up remains to be seen: one hopes it does, for everyone’s sake.

John N. Maclean (john@johnmacleanbooks.com), author of Fire on the Mountain and other books on wildland fire. Maclean is writing a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire.

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.