Hopefully, the one-word headline leaves no doubt regarding the topic of this month’s editorial. It certainly should.
I found myself in Arizona in August 2019, on vacation of all things. While I realize the Arizona heat does not make it a summer tourist destination, as it happens, my in-laws own a house there and were anxious for my family to come out and see it, and August was when everything worked out for a trip. As we were researching what do to after we arrived there, I noticed that Prescott was on the way back to my in-laws’ home and decided to go to the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. To call it quite an experience would be understating the experience of hiking the Hotshots and Journey Trails to the Fatality Site.
The Hotshots Trail is a 2.85-mile hike to an observation deck. This hike is no joke. Allow four or more hours. It’s a seven-mile round trip, you’re ascending more than 1,200 feet, and there is no shade. We started before noon, which is what the park recommends, and which is a good call. Along the way to the observation deck, there are 19 markers for each Granite Mountain Hotshot with information for each. I’m just 45 years old—not old, but old enough to find the youth on the team remarkable. Many were men nearly married or just beginning families. Many were former military, and all loved what they did.
I ascended the more than 1,200 feet wearing shorts and I carried a backpack. It was easy to get winded—we were already approximately 4,000 feet above sea level as it was. I cannot imagine hiking this trail in a smoke-filled atmosphere in Arizona heat wearing the gear that Hotshots wear and carrying their equipment. Just hiking this provided me with an appreciation for how different what these firefighters do is from structural firefighting. Though it’s obvious how different, the appreciation for the differences was greater for me after hiking to the observation deck.
Once at the observation deck, visitors can view the Fatality Site, another 0.75 miles down the mountain—the Journey Trail. The Journey Trail brings hikers along the same trail the Granite Mountain Hotshots followed as they made their way toward the Boulder Spring Ranch.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been on only a few woods fires in my career. It was always ground level brush burning, and portable tanks or forestry line has always taken care of the job. The fires have never been roaring, and except for one, the winds were not such where a change in direction could be a problem. As I descended the final 0.75 mile to the Fatality Site with my wife (the kids decided to wait at the observation deck), what struck me the most was the quiet. It was the most intense quiet I have ever heard. There was no sound. No wind. No planes overhead, and no cars driving along roads. There were no birds chirping. Everything was still.
When we made it to the Fatality Site, there were 19 gabion baskets, one for each Hotshot. Along the trail and once at the site, I tried to imagine the sounds that day when they became trapped. I pictured 19 men understanding the danger that came with the job. I pictured moving with purpose. I pictured the group acknowledging the situation they were in and knowing what they needed to do. Training and instincts took over, I imagined. I pictured a calm group, again moving with purpose but without panic. It was so calm as I walked around the 19 gabion baskets. It was very difficult to envision the conditions these 19 men were experiencing.
There’s nothing I will ever be able to say or write about this that can fully depict the experience of hiking to the observation deck and then descending along the same path the Yarnell 19 took. It is really something you need to do on your own. If you are ever in a position to visit this memorial park and complete the hike, don’t fail to seize the opportunity. My family and I were the only ones on the trails that day. That solitude combined with the stillness of the sites and the weight of what happened that day created a very moving experience for me that I hope others will avail themselves of.