Fetishizing An Enormous F*ckup

From the location of the Yarnell fire deaths:

"We are going to hallowed ground," says Jim Paxon, spokesman for the Arizona Forestry Division, moments before leading reporters and TV crews to the site where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in a June 30 wildfire.

"They are almost superhuman," Paxon drawls to reporters gathered on the morning of July 23. "As we go up there, there's a Granite Mountain Hotshots shirt on a cactus. We would ask that you touch the shirt . . . in reverence to the loss."

Darrell Willis, the Granite Mountain Hotshots direct supervisor in the Prescott Fire Department said that their deaths were God's will

"The voice of what actually happened, we'll never know," Willis says. "We're not going to have that information from [the dead men]."

Willis continues, "It was just one of those things that happened. You can call it an accident. I just say that God had a different plan for that crew at this time."

I don't know how much this tragedy gets covered nowadays outside of Arizona, but it still dominates the news here.  I have no problem sending all the sympathy in the world to the young families of these men.  But I am exhausted with the fetishizing as heroic of what looks to be a total screw up.  An experienced crew had absolutely no business being where they were, or in this day and age so badly out of communication.   They either blundered into, or were incompetently led into (the facts are still coming out) an absurdly dangerous position.   At best, they were there to protect a ranch house that had already been evacuated and was likely insured a lot better than the lives of many of the crew members.

From my observations operating for years in the US Forest Service and other wilderness areas, wildland firefighting needs a serious housecleaning.  I thought for sure this tragedy would be a stick driven into that particular anthill, almost guaranteeing scrutiny and accountability might follow.  Now I am not so sure.


  1. skhpcola:

    There must be an ulterior motive behind the attempt to deify the firefighters. More money/funding? As a society, we've constructed broad dichotomies between "cheap" lives (for example, the victims of leftist ideology and policies) and those deaths that must be elevated to mythological import. "We would ask that you touch the shirt . . . in reverence to the loss" sounds like something that would be said to the inductees of a cult trying too hard to convince themselves of their righteousness.

    Give it a few more decades and the National Mall will be packed so tightly with monuments (probably designed and produced by the Chinese) that you won't be able to throw a copy of "Rules for Radicals" without hitting one. Every special interest group and minority must be pandered to and have their symbols elevated to the level of cultural icon. We've built the modern Rome...and the fiddlers are playing frenetically.

  2. NL7:

    I'm not especially informed on firefighting strategy, but nineteen people died through what was essentially a reverse evacuation; people not at risk were put at risk. I don't know if there's a way to change strategies or tactics to reduce these risks, but it does seem like a big mistake.

    They were brave, of course, and people appreciate firefighters because it's all the heroism and bravado of cops and soldiers without the racist harassment or shooting brown people. But it still seems like this merits a review of the actions and decisions leading up to it. Maybe this is a necessary risk

  3. DirtyJobsGuy:

    I started looking carefully at wildfire aftermaths after a trip to Mt. Wilson in California. The road goes up typical Los Angeles fire country, yet I clearly saw houses intact (no trees or brush nearby) while others were destroyed (trees and brush nearby). Last year I drover through Colorado Springs after the fires there and saw lots of signs thanking firefighters. I had earlier downloaded the Colorado recommendations for houses in fire zones and quickly saw that none of the expensive houses in Colorado Springs met the protection guidelines. I think if you look carefully you will find that wildfire response is increasingly moving away from general containment and public safety to structure protection. Just like flood insurance it is being hijacked as a public subsidy.

  4. MingoV:

    My brother-in-law was a forest fire fighter for over thirty years. His wife was a forest fire fighter for over twenty years. They worked in the state of Washington in the Cascade Mountains. They had good bosses, trained hard each spring, had experienced team leaders, and had no fatalities. Other districts were not so fortunate.

    My brother-in-law says that almost all fatalities among forest fire fighters are due to poor leadership. A few are due to errors by the fire fighters, and a few are due to bad luck. The Dept. of Agriculture, like all governmental bureaucracies, lets the incompetent rise to top positions. A requirement that bosses of fire fighters must have at least five years experience as fire fighters would eliminate most fatalities.

  5. PalouseDave:

    Where were the large air tankers? It used to be that large air tanker crews were briefed when Hot Shots were in the field and large air tankers were on call all the time for immediate response to fires in their region. Not any more.

  6. HoratiusZappa:

    The whole point is to divert attention away from analysis. Generally, the more unnecessary and incompetent the handling of events leading to deaths, the more "heroic" the deaths must be made out to be.

  7. obloodyhell:

    }}} almost guaranteeing scrutiny and accountability might follow

    Dude, two words: "Challenger Disaster".

    If the heads of high mucky-mucks will roll, it was anything but a foreseeable event and a failure of management.

    Avoidance of responsibility, it's what bureaucracy is all about...

  8. obloodyhell:

    Nice piece, Patrick. I posted that up on FB to a couple people.

  9. Morven:

    The article mentions that lightning storms had been impeding the ability of air tankers to get there, certainly on previous days, so I suspect that might have been part of the problem. Lightning season fires are hard to firefight using aircraft.

  10. Travis:

    I spent my first winter/spring (1967) out of forestry school fighting fires in coastal South Carolina. My experience is that for most wildfires, they are not stopped until the weather changes or the fire runs out of something to burn. Putting men on foot to try to stop mega-fires is irresponsible. It is for show so that the public and politicians will think the firefighters are doing something. Fire retardant chemicals may have promise, but the ecototalitarians don't want us to use them. It might harm the little fishies. I guess it's better to let fire fighters die.

  11. markm:

    Hanging around HQ sucking up to the bosses is always the best way to become the next boss, unless the organization implements and enforces strict rules requiring field experience. E.g., Eisenhower got five stars and command of the largest military organization ever fighting under one commander by being so useful at HQ that he served throughout two world wars without ever seeing combat. He was indeed a great administrator and logistician, but sometimes his lack of understanding of front-line conditions showed. I think it was a considerable factor in his frequent disagreements with Patton, which resulted in Patton being sidelined sitting out some operations where he could have made a considerable difference. If he'd been in command at Anzio, he'd have driven for the mountain passes first, but Lucas consolidated the landing area while the Germans occupied the mountains, leaving our troops in a basin surrounded by German artillery for six months.

    IMO, Patton needed to be brought up short over some issues (one that Bill Mauldin derided in cartoons was requiring troops coming off months of combat to somehow find a clean dress uniform before even getting a day pass to town), but IMO Eisenhower came down on him for the wrong things. Patton cussed in public. It's the least harmful way a soldier can relieve tension. He exceeded his orders and took other generals' objectives as well as his own - that sounds like admirable initiative to me as long as he wasn't leaving his troops open to counterattacks, and the Germans never did find an opportunity to hit him while he was overextended. (Maybe he moved too fast.) And he slapped a couple of soldiers with severe cases of what we now call PTSD. That is a problem; even then enough was understood about "battle fatigue" to know that these men weren't cowards but mental casualties of war. OTOH, every infantryman went through hell, and you couldn't keep a functioning army if it was easy for men to get out of combat by breaking down, so I'd cut a successful general some slack...