A modest metal building huddles behind a chain-link fence in the industrial quarter of Prescott, Ariz., with only a small sign to identify it: Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.
Hundreds of Prescott residents drive by it every day, and until June 30, it was the home base of 19 members of our community. But that Sunday, they put on their gold shirts to head into the wilderness to create a thin line between the raging flames and us.
By now, the story is well known: 19 of 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were fighting to save the town of Yarnell, Ariz., when they were hit by what might best be called a fire hurricane.
Just a week and a half earlier, these men had inserted themselves between hundreds of homes north of Prescott and a ferocious wildfire that swept over the very mountain for which the hotshot crew takes its name. Thanks to their efforts and the help of additional firefighters, ground and aerial equipment, homes and citizens were spared.
Many of us who live in Prescott have had numerous occasions across the years to offer thanks to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as well as to other city, county, and federal firefighters. That’s why, when they drive back through town, we line the streets and cheer. We shake their hands when we meet them in local supermarkets. We write letters to the editor in praise of their heroic efforts.
But after all the kudos, we return to our homes, safe and secure, and seldom think about the fact these men routinely put their lives on the line, placing themselves in jeopardy for our collective well-being.
As investigations continue into how the tragedy occurred, there’s another search that needs to occur: We Westerners need to look into ourselves for honest answers about what we can reasonably expect of our firefighters and what we must expect of ourselves.
We carry a burden of responsibility that needs to be acknowledged and met. We live in arid lands, a characteristic likely to become more pronounced with the onset of climate change effects. Wallace Stegner eloquently expressed the nature of this challenge when he wrote that “adaptation is the covenant that all successful organisms sign with the dry country.”
Living where I do, I have woven into my daily routine some fire-resistant, adaptive actions and hereby offer them up as suggestions for other residents of the region.
First: It’s our job to add less fuel to the (prospective) fire: At home, we’ve pruned lots of vegetation on our property, which meant striking a delicate balance between conserving sufficient native wildflowers and trees for wildlife habitat and trimming trees that overhang the roof or grew too close. We also cleared gutters of fallen leaves and needles and pruned dead branches from surrounding shrubs, all to reduce fuel load on the lot. See www.firewise.org for useful tips.
Second: We packed “fire bags” to be prepared to evacuate. Yes, this is tough psychologically but crucial to our own and firefighter safety. We filled several suitcases with family photos, necessary meds, lists of contacts and other household contents that we’d need later. We checked to ensure we’re properly insured in the event of a wildfire. We scouted the route of our escape vehicle.
Third: We all need to work to reduce the carbon emissions that worsen drought and increase wildfire severity throughout the West. Some actions are simple, such as installing LED lights, conserving water inside and planting drought-resistant native species outside to reduce water use. We try to drive less, and we do cooperative errands, labor, and tool sharing with our neighbors – all small ways to make a cumulative difference. See the Environmental Protection Agency’s web page.
Fourth: We must encourage decision-makers at local and state levels to create disincentives so developers build fewer homes on the edges of national forests and other public lands -- in the place called the wildland-urban interface. See “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection,” by Headwaters Economics.
Fifth: we should demand that our congressional representatives restore and increase funding for our wildland firefighters. See, as example, this petition on the White House website.
Sixth: Find your local or regional headquarters for wildland firefighters and offer a “thank-you” donation for their training or scholarship funds. Ongoing appreciation to the people who risk their lives for us is perhaps as important as expressing grief after a tragedy.
Terril L. Shorb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He teaches community sustainability at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona.