Monday, July 1, 2013

Young Men and Fire


If you live in the West, the difference between a forest fire and any other battle that man may wage, is that with fire, we, all of us, have a common enemy, and the same heroes.


In 1974, when author Norman Maclean started his book about the Mann Gulch fire, where 13 young men -- Smokejumpers who parachuted from the sky -- perished,  he, like the century, was in his 70's, and didn't realize it would consume the last decade of his life. Though that fact wouldn't have surprised him. The book is about mortality; an old man writing about what it feels like to die young.

And he started the book because,

"The problem of self-identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does, that will tell you that you are dead." NM

But facing fire is a young man's game. Because you can't be brave or courageous, you have to be fearless. You have to believe, as we all did at 19 or 22, that you are greater than any obstacle. And in this you'll be either right, or wrong.

"In 1949, the Smokejumpers were still so young that they referred affectionately to all fires they jumped on as "ten o'clock fires," as they already had them under control before they jumped. They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy." NM

Maclean himself fought Montana forest fires while in his teens, and one time was trapped between a fire ahead and a fire below.

 "As a fire up a hillside closes in, everything -- fear, thirst, terror, a twitch in the flesh that still has a preference to live -- all becomes simply exhaustion. Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times -- first, considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into the main fire that consumes, and if you are a Catholic about all that remains of you is your cross." NM

On a personal note, I'm sorry that I didn't use my fearless years for any better purpose than to please myself. Fearless firefighters saved us here, in 2009, when our hills were blazing. I walked around at night, and saw the older ones carrying supplies, and the young ones in exhausted heaps, lying by the side of the road, down from the thick of it, faces black with smoke.

While not religious, I'll say a prayer tonight to something -- the stars or the moon -- for the 19 who died battling Yarnell Hill.


32 comments:

  1. And here's one of my favorite songs, about the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, to which Karin refers:

    COLD MISSOURI WATERS

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  2. I visited one of the youth penal camps years ago and still remember the inmate who told me about how he was allowed to go out and do heavy work with the fire crews during an emergency. He had never been thanked and respected and treated like a hero before, and he glowed just talking about that day.

    The minute Schwarzenegger went after the firefighters, I knew he was going to lose. Nurses and firefighters, you don't mess with either group, especially in the West.

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  3. I'm sorry I didn't use my fearless years for something valiant too, KB. Where would we be without those who do? Gratitude and blessings to all of them.

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  4. As soon as I heard the news, I thought of Maclean's book. I never thought when I read his vivid retelling of the Mann Gulch tragedy that there would eventually be an even larger death toll of young firefighters. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully.

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  5. A fitting tribute to these heroes . Beautiful.
    V

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  6. So tragic. Heroes, each and every one. May they rest in peace.

    I've not heard of this book or this author. He sounds like an exceptional writer. I'll have to check him out.

    Blessings,
    Carolynn

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  7. Bellis, I knew we'd be thinking along similar lines. Proves that firefighting is still equal parts science and art and luck and guts.

    If you haven't read the book, Maclean is probably best known for A River Runs Through It, but I think Young Men and Fire is his masterpiece. You can buy it second hand for a penny on Amazon.

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  8. Very nice Karin. I'll pray for you.

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  9. I had the same reaction to Yarnell Hill after thinking about Mann Gulch. They've learned a lot from experience and I'm sure the techniques they use now are more efficient and effective, but unfortunately, no matter how much we know, sometimes events can overtake us.

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  10. Thank you for this.

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  11. Beautiful piece, Karin. I haven't read that book, though bonded with A River Runs Through It because it so closely paralleled my father's family.

    Remember our own two fatalities in Aug 1993? It was a small, almost "routine" brush fire above Loma Alta just west of Pinecrest. The fire engulfed four men in a small canyon probably driven by erratic fire-generated winds. Two of them didn't make it, the other two were badly injured. I was admiring the fat plane dropping water and became aware that the officers at the roadblock became very solemn and pale. Heart rending.

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  12. Great post Karin. Very sad and also though provoking. The ultimate sacrifice. These guys put it all on the line, every time they go out.

    If you have the time and/or inclination, here is a link to a post I did about a memorial trail relating to the Fire Fighters who lost their lives in the Inaja Fire in San Diego county. It took place over 50 years ago.
    http://patricktillett.blogspot.com/2012/06/inaja-tail.html
    Now that I think about it, you may have even commented on it.

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  13. Firefighters are always a gutsy lot. A 50 year old fireman here just died last week. He'd seen a car crash and stopped to help; he was electrocuted by a downed power wire. While we'd all like to think we'd have done the same, I very much doubt that we would. The funeral cortege stretched for miles, and citizens lined the downtown streets. No doubt the sorrow in our hearts is but a shadow of that felt in Arizona today.

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  14. I recently read that the worst loss of life due to fire was in Griffith Park in 1933

    " These men were in Griffith Park because of an extraordinary federal-county partnership designed to help the nation muddle through its economic collapse"

    then....

    "You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams,” one man said. “The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence — then you would hear another scream. It was all over inside of seven minutes.”

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  15. When I was young and strong and my body still worked as it should, I applied to every government program that could be shortened into letters, in an attempt to become a firefighter at more than the city level. I knew the beauty and danger of fire and wanted to be out on the front lines fighting the licks of the devil. Similar to my athletic endeavors, I thought I could beat the flames with my skills.

    My only positive was being female. The lack of pigment in my skin and coming from the zipcode 91030 was apparently a major drawback for the programs from accepting me.

    Ironically enough, I handle a hose quite well and have given my time to local efforts as needed.

    You are quite right about not messing with nurses and firefighters--few people go running TOWARDS danger as those two professions do every single day.

    Marjie--a number of years ago, we had a fire near me that took the life of a 36 yo firefighter who, in the dark of night, could not see a downed electric line. As with two police officers gunned down earlier this year, public memorials have all of our local overpasses covered in citizens standing at attention as the cortege goes by.

    May the memories of the 19 young men, as with others who have died in the fight to protect us, always be for a blessing.

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  17. That is a lovely tribute. I'm glad you wrote it.

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  18. Thank you for such a beautiful and moving tribute.
    Boise is HQ for the National Interagency Fire Center, the support center for wildland firefighting. Most people here know someone who was a firefighter or currently is.

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  19. It occurs to me that when we have a fire up here in Altadena, then we roll out the signs to salute those who are risking their lives. "THANK YOU FIREFIGHTERS" the banners say. And when the smoke clears, the signs come down. I think we should have a permanent sign or art installation on Lake Street that pays tribute to the men and women who are always ready to risk their lives for ours.

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  20. And one more thing -- over the past four years I've visited about ten fire stations. Some because it was a job, but now, I stop in a fire station whenever I happen by one. Because they're the nicest people. I'm sure that's not in their job description -- "must be nice" -- but it seems to go with the territory.

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  21. "an old man writing about what it feels like to die young". Why do I find this beautiful? Partly, anything you word I find beautiful.

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  22. Thanks for this beautiful tribute.

    And thanks for remembering those who are in the youth penal camps. My 16 year-old cousin was a member of Crew 4-4. Eight members of that crew lost their lives in the Canyon Inn Fire in 1968. They had had two weeks training.

    Following that loss of life the practice of sending out juvenile probationers to fight fires was re-evaluated and stopped.

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  23. I’ve just heard from a friend in the Phoenix area that there are efforts by some in Arizona to cut back on pensions (and other benefits?) for firefighters. And a couple of years ago we learned that Walter Reed hospital was in a disgusting condition as a welcome to wounded American military personnel. Similar skimping has been covered in other news pieces about amputees and veterans with PTSD. Where is the outrage? I don’t even hear about POLITE opposition to these stingy politicians. Where is the outrage?

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  24. You've said it as well and as thoughtfully as it can be stated.

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  25. "The problem of self-identity is not just a problem for the young." Sounds like Maclean is a man who knows of which he speaks, and the chosen excerpts from the book sell me on his ability to write. Your perspective sheds a bit of light on that fearlessness that I've never understood. Thank you for the insight ~

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  26. All credit for this post goes to Norman Maclean. And for those who decry the Walmart wages, know this, if I'm right: Starting salary for the Arizona hotshots who put their life on the line is $26,000 a year. I don't know how it pans out in other western states including mine for frontline firefighters, I can only assume. And these are our employees, the wages we're choosing to pay.

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  27. Beautiful, Karin. I can't comprehend such courage nor the sense of loss left by this tragedy. Our priorities are pretty screwed up to accept such measly salaries for these heroes.

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  28. I ran into a friend today at the South Pasadena parade. She told me that one of her counterparts in her company in Arizona is the pregnant wife of one of the Nineteen. He was back from three tours in Afghanistan.

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  29. A inspiring and moving tribute, Karin. I've not heard of this book or this author... Thanks for let me know about this courageous man and his book.

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  30. Ah! Very significative these two pictures.

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  31. Your title recalls the tune by Springsteen: FIRE.

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