Bestselling author and New York Times editor Fernanda Santos shares her thoughts, and experience with WFGI Founders Juliann, Deborah, and Roxanne, and her reaction to the Tenderfoot Fire in Yarnell, Az 2016. A wildfire burned near Yarnell, Az in 2013 and claimed the lives of nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots. Fernanda had researched the fire for the New York Times and sparked her bestselling book: The Fire Line the Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and one of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting.
Hi, everyone. Another wildfire burned in Yarnell, Ariz., last week, almost three years to the day that a fire destroyed much of the town and killed 19 firefighters from the same crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, whose story I tell in The Fire Line. Again, I packed my bags and drove up the mountain from my home in Phoenix. I ended up at the grade school in neighboring Peeples Valley, which doubled as incident command post, just as it did in 2013.
One of the first people I bumped into was Ben Palm, the fire chief in Yarnell. He had in his hands a map of the town. He laid it on a table and pointed to a thick red line traced along its eastern edge – fuel breaks carved in the thick vegetation. As soon as Ben took the helm of the department, four months after the deadly fire, he got some federal and state grants to pay for the tough task of building these fuel breaks.
The breaks helped saved Yarnell this time. They stopped the flames before the flames could swallow the the town, as they did on June 30, 2013.
“We’ve learned our lesson in the hardest possible way,” Ben Palm told me.
Others who also lived through both fires had their own stories to tell me, memories to share. There was the American Red Cross nurse who said she feels “a little bit protective of the people of Yarnell,” so she volunteered last week at the emergency shelter, as she’d done in 2013. There was a woman whose home of 36 years burned to the ground three years ago and who got the certificate of occupancy for her new home a day before last week’s fire ignited.
She spent several days in agony, wondering if she’d lose her house again. She didn’t. No one did.
Deborah Pfingston, whose younger son, Andrew Ashcraft, is one of the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots, drove up to the command post on Friday with her husband, Jerry. They brought grapes, cherries and beef jerky for the crews toiling on the fire line. Deborah; Andrew’s wife, Juliann; and Roxanne Warneke, whose husband, Billy, also died in Yarnell, founded a nonprofit group, the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, to push for changes in the way fires are fought and firefighters are trained and tracked while on the job. “Positive things,” Deborah said.
Deborah and I talked many times as I reported and wrote my book. We often grabbed a coffee at the same Wildflower Cafe where she and Andrew used to meet on their way to work. She told me so much about Andrew. She also asked a lot of important questions and raised some glaring red flags – and I’m grateful for that. Deborah is one of the good friends I made among the relatives and alumni of the Granite Mountain Hotshots I’ve met. These friendships are the silver linings in a tragedy.
Mistakes suck, and they can have horrific consequences. We have a choice, though: Dwell on the past or take the mistakes we’ve made and turn them into lessons. That’s what Deborah, Juliann and Roxanne are working hard to do through their nonprofit. That was the attitude I noticed among the men and women directing the fire fight in Yarnell last week.
Living, learning and trying hard not to repeat the mistakes I’ve made is the path I’ve chosen to follow. I thank the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their blood and fire families for teaching me that.
I’ll be signing copies of my book in in New Mexico this week. If you’re around, stop by Collected Works, 202 Galisteo Street, in Santa Fe, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, or Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Boulevard NW, in Albuquerque, at 6 p.m. on Friday. I’ll have a special hug reserved for you.
That’s it for now, but there’s more to come soon.
For Fernanda Santos updates, and further reading click here