For about a week, clouds of smoke, flaming chaparral and the charred remains of ponderosa pine were nearly all that wildland firefighters battling the Goodwin Fire could see.
But on Friday evening, members of a hotshot crew fighting the most intense part of the central Arizona blaze spotted a rare sight: Two deer fawns, disoriented but uninjured, “right there along the fire line,” said Kale Casey, a spokesman for the Goodwin Fire incident management team.
“They were confused and mama’s gone,” Casey told The Washington Post. “There was a 100 percent certainty that these fawns were going to die.”
Without hesitation, firefighters from the Flagstaff-based hotshot crew plucked the two baby deer from the oncoming flames and toted them to safety.
Two public information officers who had hiked out with the crew to document their firefighting operation captured footage of the rescue. On Saturday, fire officials posted that footage on Facebook, where it was widely shared.
“The Hotshots carried the fawns out of harm’s way and transferred them to a nearby unaffected habitat so they could be reunited with their mother,” officials wrote. In a separate post about the rescue, they added: “#SmokeyBear would be very, very happy.”
Casey said that, under ordinary circumstances, wildland firefighters do not disturb wildlife — for a number of reasons. In intense situations, hotshot crews are focused on containing wildfire and saving human lives and property. Often, too, firefighters don’t see animals until it’s too late.
“It’s not uncommon for hotshots to see burnt and severely wounded animals that are beyond saving after the fire,” Casey said. “Of course there’s going to be animals that perish when fires are fast-moving. There’s just not the manpower or it’s not feasible to be able to start transporting injured, fully grown elk or deer or moose or bear.”
In this case, however, the fawns were in harm’s way, with their mother nowhere to be seen. The hotshot crews knew they couldn’t leave them behind to die.
“There’s no standard operating procedure for this. This is simply an act of what hotshots do,” Casey said. “They’re a service-oriented people. … so they’re not going to walk by.”
News of the fawns’ rescue was met with overwhelming praise on the Prescott National Forest’s Facebook page. The incident happened to coincide with the four-year anniversary of the death of 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, who were killed while they battled the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.
“Endless respect and admiration, firefighters,” one Facebook user commented. “You are never taken for granted.”
On Sunday, fire officials posted another update on Facebook saying that both fawns had been placed in a nearby safe habitat, then transported to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility after one of the fawns appeared to not be doing well.
An accompanying video showed one of the fawns being bottle-fed and petted while the others lingered nearby.
“If they respond to treatment they will ultimately be released when old enough to make the transition back to a life in the wild,” the post noted. “While Arizona Game and Fish Department encourage people not to pick up baby wildlife, under these extenuating circumstances the firefighters were moving the fawns out of harm’s way.”
The fawns’ rescue video was a bright spot among otherwise bleak developments from the Goodwin Fire, which started June 24 in the Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona, about a two hours’ drive north of the Phoenix metropolitan area. So far, the blaze has consumed more than 25,000 acres and forced evacuations in nearby residential areas. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
As of Sunday afternoon, 53 percent of the fire’s perimeter was contained. Officials said they expect for the Goodwin Fire to be fully contained by Tuesday.