They'd never had to use the fire emergency shelters. This time they weren't so lucky.
The elite firefighters who were killed Sunday in the deadliest U.S. wildfire in decades were "hotshot" rescue workers whose job it was to work on the front lines of fighting wildfires. They were battling a 2,000-acre fire in Arizona that had destroyed an estimated 200 homes. Among their firefighting equipment, the "last fail safe method" was a tent-like structure made of fire-resistant foil that the blaze would literally overrun. And Sunday was a day of last resorts.
Imagine the courage it must take to unfold a thin sheet of material, crawl beneath it, and tamp down the edges as a fire burns over the top of you and your fellow firefighters. In an earlier Cronkite News Service profile of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the crew which fell victim to the Yarnell Hill wildfire, a description of the survival tactic is harrowing:
"Diving to the ground, crew members attempt to form a tight circle and point their feet toward the approaching flames. That will deflect heat and help protect their torsos. They clamp down on the edges of their emergency shelters to make sure fire, smoke and heat can’t get inside, and they keep their faces near the ground to breathe cooler air that won’t damage their lungs."
And then wait for the fire to rage over their backs.
One of 112 "interagency hotshot crews" around the United States, the crew emphasizes the physical tasks the job demands on its Web site. "We believe in rigorous physical and mental training," a description reads, noting that "we are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks. Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common." It lists problem solving, teamwork, decision-making in stressful environments and, notably, "being nice" as the other qualifications the job demands.
It does not, however, list courage, or selflessness, or fortitude, even if that's what separates an effective team member or even an effective team leader from the 19 heroes who died in Yarnell, Ariz. Perhaps that's because while we might know how good we are at problem solving, whether or not we have the guts to protect ourselves from a dangerous wildfire with a thin sheet of heat-reflective material is impossible to gauge. Most people will never know if they possess that kind of bravery or not. Thank goodness there are some--today, tragically, 19 fewer--who do.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.