Opinion — What effect will a new administration have on firefighting?

Vice President Biden at the memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013: “Firefighting is not what they did — it is who they were”

Granite Mountain HS Memorial Service Joe Biden Vice President
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ Memorial Service, Prescott Valley, Arizona. July 9, 2013. Screenshot from C-SPAN video.

With a new administration taking the reins of the federal government January 20, some may be thinking about what changes, if any, will affect wildland firefighting. Of course it is dangerous to attempt to predict what any government official will do, but in this case President Elect Joe Biden has a lengthy track record even before he served as Vice President for eight years under the Obama presidency.

Vice President Biden spoke at the memorial service July 9, 2013 in Prescott Valley, Arizona, for the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire. From the C-SPAN recording, we made a video clip of his remarks and the slide show that followed featuring the 19 men.  You can see the entire two-hour service at C-SPAN.

Granite Mountain Hotshots' Memorial Service, Prescott Valley, Arizona. July 9, 2013
Granite Mountain Hotshots’ Memorial Service, Prescott Valley, Arizona. July 9, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

At Prescott Valley Mr. Biden showed tremendous empathy and appreciation for the deceased men, their families, and firefighters in general, saying, “All men are created equal, and then a few became firefighters,” and, “They were heroes long before we knew their names.” Few public servants would be capable or have the desire to exhibit the degree of compassion for firefighters showed by Mr. Biden. Most people will find themselves choking up while listening to his sympathetic words. Cameras caught people in the audience wiping away tears.

Vice President Biden also spoke September 12, 2009 at the memorial service for the two firefighters killed on the Station Fire near Los Angeles, Tedmund Hall and Arnaldo Quinones.

In 2013 Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the Medal of Valor to 18 firefighters and police officers for exhibiting exceptional courage. The Vice President, a former Chairperson of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, made some very meaningful remarks, some of which appeared to be unscripted. Here is a brief excerpt:

There’s something special about firefighters and cops……. You all share — you’re all crazy, God love you — you all share a selflessness that is not easily explained, a commitment to your fellow man that’s rare, bravery that inspires, literally inspires almost everyone that hears about it……. Being a firefighter or police officer is not what you do, it’s who you are….. There’s something about ya’ll. You can smell it when you’re 10, you’re 12, you’re 15. And God we’re lucky for it man. I marvel at what makes them tick. I marvel at what makes them tick.

But showing compassion and empathy does not guarantee future action or passing legislation when necessary.

The Obama/Biden administration worked with Congress to address climate change in many ways, including participating in the 2015 Climate Agreement. During the last four years the U.S. has withdrawn from the Agreement and taken other actions to reverse previous progress, but Mr. Biden has said he will make dealing with climate change an important priority, will again honor the agreement, and has an ambitious goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The large majority of respected climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change has greatly affected our weather. The higher temperatures and bouts of drought and extreme weather have resulted in lower fuel moistures and extreme wildfires that are very difficult to suppress. At stake are lives, private property, health of the population, and natural resources. Lack of action to slow climate change is not a reasonable option.

Here are some examples of Mr. Biden’s record on firefighter issues documented by the International Association of Firefighters:

  • As vice president, Mr. Biden was tasked by President Obama as the administration’s point-person on first responder issues.
  • During his time in the Senate, he played a leadership role on nearly every piece of legislation introduced affecting fire fighters.
  • Early in his Senate career, Mr. Biden championed the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program, which provides death benefits to the families of fallen fire fighters. He later introduced and passed legislation to increase PSOB benefits from $150,000 to $250,000, and indexed it to inflation so the benefit is now $340,000.
  • Senator Biden helped create the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs, and consistently advocated for robust funding.
  • As vice president, Mr. Biden helped push through the Zadroga 9/11 Act to provide healthcare and compensation to those fire fighters who participated in the 9/11 response and recovery efforts. (Video of Jon Stewart advocating for the extension of the Act in 2019.)
  • As vice president, Mr. Biden worked with fire fighters and Congress to pass legislation creating a nationwide public safety broadband network.

William Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” We can safely assume that in his administration, Mr. Biden will continue to care about firefighters. But he can’t pass legislation — he will need the cooperation of Congress, which has found it difficult move any kind of bill in recent years.

Perhaps Mr. Biden will have more luck than previous presidents due to having served in the Senate for 36 years and his relationship with Mitch McConnell, who may still be the Majority Leader in the Senate going forward. Here is an excerpt from an article at Firechief.com:

In his book “The Long Game: A Memoir,” McConnell stated that trying to deal with then-President Obama was impossible. “[Obama] acted like a professor every time we tried to discuss legislation. The first 45 minutes was always a lecture about how and why we were wrong,” McConnell wrote. On the other hand, McConnell loved dealing with Biden. “Joe would come into a meeting and say, this is what I need, and this is what I understand that you need. Is there any way to work out a deal here?”

The sister of one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots tells her story

In 2013, 19 of the 20 members of the crew were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire

Granite Hotshots procession 7-7-2013
The procession escorting the Granite Hotshots from Phoenix to Prescott, July 7, 2013. The white truck is one of their crew carriers. Farther back in the line are the 19 white hearses. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From Bill: June 30 marked the seventh year since 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Words can’t express how meaningful that event was — and still is — to the firefighting community. Our hearts go out to the friends and family members of the 19 firefighters.

With a different perspective on the impacts, we have an article published on Devon Herrera’s blog Coffee With a Question. Much of it is in the words of Taylor Caldwell, the sister of one of the Hotshots, Robert Caldwell.


When I got a message from Taylor informing me she was ready to tell her story but needed help telling it, I was excited, then honored, then extremely intimidated, not only because I’d known and loved her brother since elementary school, but because the Yarnell fire that took 19 hotshots will forever be etched into Prescott’s history, and in our hearts.

“I just think it’s time,” she said. “The seven-year anniversary is coming up and I want to honor him.”

That’s right… seven years. I cannot believe it’s been seven years since the tragedy that would ultimately pull our community back together.

I told Taylor we would schedule a time to interview her, but she wanted to do things a little more unconventionally… I always admired her trailblazing spirit.

“So, I’ll probably talk your ear off for hours if we’re on the phone; do you think I can just record myself and send it to you?” she asked.

I’m all about collaborating in new ways, so of course, I didn’t think twice about it; this is Taylor’s story, after all, and I’m just privileged to be a vessel to share it with you.

So, without further ado…

“We called Robert, Buggy or Bug Man; he was born right outside of Pennsylvania on August 7th, 1989 – we were exactly 2.5 years apart and because of this, we always got a kick out of wishing each other a happy half birthday. My brother had the most infectious smile and laugh, which I can still hear to this day,” I watched her smile as she thought of it.

She explained how they would consider themselves best friends before siblings; that they did everything together.

“Robert helped our dad build a cabin out in Colorado when we were super young; he was always so good at putting things together… so active and wild, always living outside the lines. At a certain point, my dad took him bird hunting, then fly fishing just to try and keep him away from trouble. The attempt at sports was short lived… he was absolutely terrible… seriously, my dad tried to get him into everything, but he had about zero coordination.”

Our laughs hummed at the same time before I shared a story about Robert doing flips off the fence at our elementary school; he was always down for a dare. Oh, and yes, if you’re confused about how I’m chiming in now, we’ve incorporated an actual interview into this piece, to make sure we deliver the desired message.

Back to scheduled programming –

“You know something funny?” Taylor offered, “Robert had three dogs throughout his life, and he named each of them Hunter.”

“Easier to remember that way, I suppose. I’m sure more people wish it was that smooth when they transitioned relationships,” she raised her eyebrows as if to say, ‘you’re tellin’ me’ then repositioned her phone on the dining table.

“Something I don’t think a lot of people would know about my brother was his love of books. He was always, always reading. I actually have the book he was reading before he died… let me go grab it,” she got up and walked to her kitchen, coming back to show me a copy of ‘Scar Tissue’ by Anthony Kiedis – the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She told me he was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, too; so much so that a lady in Maryland sent over an original copy of one of his books after he passed. It was called Farewell To Arms.”

“Maryland?” I asked…

“Yeah, my dad had a boat in Salisbury, Maryland and Robert would go live on it during the off season; he’d drive around town in my dad’s Porsche. I’m actually pretty surprised he didn’t total it, like this truck he and his friends flipped when they were 14. But again, as crazy as he was, and as much trouble as he caused, he cared so much about people. Oh, and he loved a theme party… any chance to dress up, he was in. It’s why we have our annual Bob-A-Palooza now… celebrating him just as he would want it.”

I smiled, recalling the time he helped me get ready at his house… I actually don’t even think we were going to a theme party, but he wanted me to dress up with him, so I did, and he even helped with my hair.

“As you could’ve guessed, Robert absolutely hated school. He had a mechanical mind so he wanted to be more hands on; he could fix just about anything which came in handy when the check engine light went off. So, I wasn’t surprised when he said he wanted to be a hotshot; he explained to me that he wanted to help people. He always wanted to help people… he had so much empathy. I remember when I came out as gay, Robert was my biggest advocate. He cried because he knew what a burden it must’ve been on me; he showered me with every bit of love, making sure I knew how much he supported me,” she fondly remembered while briefly looking down.

Robert Caldwell Granite Mountain Hotshots
Robert Caldwell, courtesy of Taylor Caldwell.

“Robert would always send me crazy pictures while he was out with his crew; pictures that didn’t even seem real, like the slurry bombers. He’d send me videos of him with the boys; they’d always play pranks and I could tell how deeply each of them loved each other. I also remember the picture he sent me of his burnt boots; it was the fire right before Yarnell. ‘T, look… I got so close, my boots melted,’ he wrote, and he truly wasn’t scared; he was more annoyed with the inconvenience of having to get new boots,” we both laughed again.

Continue reading “The sister of one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots tells her story”

Granite Mountain Hotshots — five years ago today

Granite Mountain HotshotsWhen I think about the June 30, 2013 tragedy where 19 firefighters were killed battling a fire near Yarnell, Arizona, I remember Abraham Lincoln’s Address as he and others dedicated a military cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where thousands of soldiers died almost exactly 155 years ago, July 1-3, 1863, in what has been described as the turning point of the Civil War. We don’t even know for sure the number killed, with estimates ranging from 7,000 to 8,000.

The President was honoring those who were killed in the battle. The men fought each other, the North vs. the South. Wildland firefighters, thankfully, don’t fight each other, but there are similarities between fighting wars and fighting wildfires.

That day in 1863 the President said in part:

“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

It is difficult to find positive outcomes in a mass casualty incident like the Yarnell Hill Fire. But one thing that is doable, is to at least learn some lessons, and more importantly, use them to take action to reduce the number of fatalities on wildland fires. We will never eliminate all risks of firefighting, but proactive management locally, at the national level within the agencies, and in Congress, can make a difference.

Excerpt from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

John N. Maclean releases new book about the Rattlesnake Fire

When I worked at Log Springs in 1968 on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California I don’t remember much discussion about the catastrophe that killed 15 wildland firefighters only a couple of dozen miles away 15 years before. The Rattlesnake Fire was not a huge campaign fire that blackened tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to contain. It burned about 1,300 acres and was declared under control roughly 40 hours after Stan Pattan threw the match out the window of his green Buick, July 9, 1953.

All but one of the firefighters that perished that day were affiliated with the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. Some had taken fire training, and others had none. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire at night down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.

book river of fire john macleanJohn N. Maclean, an author well known in wildland fire circles for his previous work, has released a new book about the Rattlesnake Fire, titled River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The official release is today, June 23 at the 75th Region 4 Smokejumper Reunion in McCall, Idaho.

The book builds on the piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional wildland fire topics. The new book adds more details and includes information from, and sections written by, firefighters who have recently worked in the area, including three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots. There are also photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. Maclean told us that one of the themes of this book is “Passing It On”, which is the title of the foreword written in May, 2018 by Don Will, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.

River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster pilot named Vance Nolta who designed a tank with a gate and a dump valve that could be operated from the cockpit. A test of the system on a fire intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.

There is also a touching story about a young child who lived at the Fouts Springs missionary camp when the fire started in 1953. Her father was killed in the fire, and as she grew up her mother did not talk about him or how he died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours from Oregon she contacted the Forest Supervisor’s office in Willows and asked for directions.  Here is an excerpt from one of the later sections of the book:

…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] Tishner, who volunteered to take them to the site and show them around. “I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said. “It was the best day on the hill I’ve ever had.”

The tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as changes in wildland fire training, safety standards, and awareness of weather and fire behavior.

memorial 1953 Rattlesnake Fire
Part of the memorial at the site of the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire. Larry Cregger photo, 2005.

For decades there was not much at the site to identify it or interpret what took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, and in 2005 a new interpretive and training site overlooking the area in Grindstone Canyon was built on the old Alder Springs Road. It features exhibits describing the events that day in 1953, and trails lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.

The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate the numerous visits and staff rides each year. Passing on the lessons learned to new generations of firefighters can help build up their knowledge base about fire behavior and weather and may keep them from repeating some of the unfortunate decisions that led to the deaths of 14 missionaries and one agency employee.

There are, of course, other wildfires where large numbers of wildland firefighters died — the 1910 fires (85 killed), the Griffith Park Fire in 1933 in a Los Angeles City Park (29, most were not firefighters but were pulled from other tasks to work on the fire), Blackwater Fire of 1937 (15), Mann Gulch of 1949 (13), Inaja in 1956 (11), South Canyon Fire of 1994 (14), and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire (19).

We asked Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), and this is what he sent us:

During the photo shoot for this book this spring, Kari Greer, photographer, and Daren Dalrymple, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, ran into two young men, a former firefighter and a hopeful one, hiking the firelines at the site.

“When Daren and I were up there,” said Kari, “these two guys drove up and chatted with us briefly when we were shooting near the Gillaspy ranch. They said they were headed for the Rattlesnake site and they proceeded on to the Overlook. They must have stopped there, paid respects and read about the fire, and then walked around a bit from there.”

She said the two continued all the way up to Powderhouse Turn, while she and Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.

“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “the size of the guys hiking in the chaparral and their pace as they traversed the landscape. They did the entire thing, even going down to Cecil Hitchcock’s cross at the bottom and clear up to Stanley Vote’s cross at the top. This showed us that they knew the history and were doing the full experience.

“Daren and I made our way up to Powderhouse Turn, and we caught up with them as they were hiking out, coming up the Access Route that goes downhill to the Missionary Spot Fire. We talked a bit more with the two of them and learned that José Gonzalez was here being mentored by Daniel Hartrum, who is a former firefighter, now a teacher. José was working hard; he was wearing a Pack Test Vest and carrying a tool. They told us he was hoping to get hired onto a crew and Daniel was giving him some field experience at the site.”

The book is very well written and edited, as usual for a John N. Maclean product. As mentioned above, much of the content is from the Fire and Ashes book published 15 years ago, but there is a good deal of new text and updated information covering what has transpired in the intervening years. The contributions by the three hotshot superintendents are especially valuable. I recommend this book for Students of Fire and all wildland firefighters for the lessons that can be learned, especially if they have not read the Fire and Ashes book. It would be a good reading assignment before participating in a staff ride at the site.

The black and white photos are helpful to figure out the context and geography. The electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, and Apple products.

Related: read “The Back Story: The Development of the River of Fire book”.

The video below, uploaded to YouTube in 2017, shows the memorial site and some of the crosses marking the locations where the firefighters lost their lives.

Other books written by John N. Maclean: The Thirtymile Fire, Fire and Ashes, Fire on the Mountain, and The Esperanza Fire.

Mike Rowe honors wildland firefighters

His Facebook show traveled to Prescott, Arizona, which was the home of the Granite Mountain Hotshots

Above: The trailhead at Granite Mountain Memorial State Park May 19, 2017 before the modification featured in the program.

In the most recent episode of Mike Rowe’s Facebook series, “Returning the Favor” (below), he honors wildland firefighters as he spends time in Prescott, Arizona. The 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire south of the city in 2013 were based in Prescott. Mr. Rowe talks with Deborah Pfingston and Roxanne Preston, co-founders of The Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, and reveals an improvement at the state park that honors the crew.

Ms. Pfingston’s son, Andrew Ashcraft, and Ms. Preston’s husband, William Warneke, were killed in the fire.

I don’t know when the show was filmed, and I won’t spoil the reveal at the end, but the change made at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park was not there when I visited the park in May of 2017.

Arizona Supreme Court refuses to hear case about burned structures in Yarnell Hill Fire

Property owners sought compensation from the state for houses that were destroyed.

Yarnell Hill Fire approaching Yarnell, Arizona, June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

The Arizona Supreme Court has refused to hear a case in which property owners sought to obtain compensation from the state for the structures that were destroyed in the Yarnell Hill Fire in June, 2013. A lower court had already ruled that the owners had no legal recourse.

According to media reports, Attorney David Abney had hoped to argue that since Arizona state employees told the residents that they would protect the structures, the government was then obligated and had a duty to perform fire suppression activities in a nonnegligent manner.

“If the people of Yarnell had understood the state was going to do this incredibly incompetently, and the state was going to do a late and improper evacuation notice, they could have taken some measures to protect themselves,” Mr. Abney explained.

“They could have gotten their personal possession out, their pets and livestock out,” he continued. “They could have removed propane tanks that blew up in the fire, they could have removed their excess vehicles.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Joy.
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