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July 1, 2013

Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind
Posted by Patrick at 08:30 AM * 36 comments

Nineteen firefighters died yesterday, fighting an out-of-control wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona.

Before yesterday, the total number of Arizona firefighters killed by wildfires since 1955 was 21.

First responders of all kinds are awesome. But firefighting is particularly terrible work.

In a decent society, firefighters would have yachts and country homes, while bankers would scrape from paycheck to paycheck.


ETA (by Abi) In the comments, this lovely tribute by Jo Walton:

And if death is the end, if death is all;
If there’s no God, no angels, and no souls,
Then still they died fulfilling human goals
Striving to help and answering the call.
Wanting to live, but knowing they could die,
They fought the fire, and saved all that they might,
The lives of friends, or strangers, as is right,
And died as heroes, here beneath the sky.
Nineteen of them, all different, all unique,
Making their human choice, to help, to stay,
For different human reasons, they came through
Were there where they were needed, were not weak,
But did the work required of them this day,
And died as well as people ever do.
Comments on Two hundred yards to safety, death was fifty yards behind:
#1 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 09:25 AM:

There are a lot of brave people who go out into the wilderness to fight fires. These 19 will not be forgotten. It's a bad fire up there, and Yarnell is pretty much gone.

Also, there's a 20th firefighter who is very badly burned but still alive. He's in a hospital in Prescott. His survival is far from certain.

#2 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 09:27 AM:

I have an ex-boss whose son told him, "I want to be a firefighter."

He put his son in the car and drove to downtown Chicago and said, "This is where the firefighters live."

He drove out to one of the suburbs and said, "This is where the bankers live."

#3 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 09:57 AM:

Ken: OTOH, bankers seldom if ever get a send-off like this.

There's more than one kind of respect in our society.

#4 ::: Janni Lee Simner ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:11 AM:

I know those lyrics. Knew what the post was about the moment I saw them.

They're utterly appropriate and right.

#5 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:46 AM:

Rest in peace. Thank you.

#6 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 11:00 AM:

Sometimes, though, you get a banker like Bill Bromage, who was president of our local bank at the time of his death, and also a member of the local volunteer fire department.

They named a street after him, here in Colebrook, which is not something small New England towns do lightly.

#7 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 11:31 AM:
I have an ex-boss whose son told him, "I want to be a firefighter."

He put his son in the car and drove to downtown Chicago and said, "This is where the firefighters live."

He drove out to one of the suburbs and said, "This is where the bankers live."

I... pretty much hate that story. Or maybe just hate the dad in that story.

I can walk down the street in my hometown and see the faces of people who might not be alive except that I was there at the time and place I was needed. I would damn well live a hovel to pay for that.

...president of our local bank at the time of his death, and also a member of the local volunteer fire department. They named a street after him, here in Colebrook, which is not something small New England towns do lightly.

Yes.

###

Wildfires are a hell of a thing.

And they're only going to get worse as climate change makes our dry places drier and our wet places wetter.

#8 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 12:34 PM:

I'm just sick to my stomach over this. They were up there not just to protect property, but the lives of the residents as well, and they lost theirs doing so. For those not familiar with Yarnell, most of the area is extremely rough country, with very few roads in and out, and a very high fuel load.

From what I'm hearing, there may have been a significant number of residents trapped by the fire. The evacuees they've been interviewing don't think everyone in Yarnell got out.

Yarnell was not under an evacuation order because they thought they had the fire under control, and the winds were not blowing towards town. Most residents only had minutes of warning -- a dry thunderstorm blew up over the fire, then there was a gust front from the storm, the wind changed, and there were 50 mph winds driving the fire towards the town with NO warning.


#9 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 12:51 PM:

Those firefightes gave their lives for their neighbours without thought for their own. That's the fundamental definition of heroism.

#10 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 01:38 PM:

Greater love hath no man but this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13

#11 ::: thanate ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 02:36 PM:

I had an interesting conversation with one of my neighbors a couple months back: he's a firefighter, and mentioned that his brother in law is a police officer and is very much of the opinion that he doesn't want to be paid lots of money. If you're in a career where fear, discomfort, and possibly dying may suddenly become part of your job description, you had better be there for the right set of reasons, and getting rich isn't one of them.

That said, it's awfully hard on the people who are there for the right set of reasons and practicing heroism.

#12 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 02:51 PM:

Norman Maclean wrote a book on the Mann Gulch fire, Young Men and the Fire. I remember reading it years back -- and coming to the realization of just how fast things turn bad when there's fire involved.


#13 ::: Em ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:18 PM:

My best friend's house burnt down on Sunday, and she says that to an individual, the firefighters were amazing and went out of their way to not only fight the fire despite stretched resources (there were three house fires and an industrial fire in town that night), but to provide her with as much information as possible in the aftermath as she wanted, and to be empathetic.

Good people. I'm sad to hear there are fewer of them now.

#14 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:31 PM:

I didn't notice a credit for the songwriter or performer on either the video or your post, Patrick. And it's not a song I know. Easy enough to look it up, I know, but I'd rather not have to!

#15 ::: BigHank53 ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:45 PM:

You do know why we have wilderness firefighters, don't you? Way back when, Congress established an unlimited fund to be drawn against in order to eliminate the threat of wildfires in the West. In the circular reasoning of bureaucracies, the more land that needs to be defended means more firefighters which means more money which means you can defend more land...

Were it not for the federal tap that will never, ever be turned off, there's a lot less of the West that would be considered habitable. Had things gone a little differently, all of Colorado Springs could have gone up two weeks ago. In my opinion, it's only a matter of time before we lose a city.

None of which makes the sacrifice in Arizona any easier.

#16 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:54 PM:

Tom Whitmore (14): The song is by James Keelaghan.

#18 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 04:01 PM:

The singer sounds like Richard Shindell. Uncredited of course.

#19 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 04:25 PM:

Bighank53 @ 15 -- a few days ago, we came closer than I'd care to think to losing Payson, AZ and points beyond. I'd guesstimate that there's 20,000 people living in Payson and the surrounding areas.

The bicycle junkyard in Rye went up in flames.

http://www.paysonroundup.com/news/2013/jun/30/all-bikes-all-gone/

If that fire had gotten away from the firefighters and gone up Oxbow Hill, it would have roared into Payson like a freight train.

#20 ::: RiceVermicelli ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 04:27 PM:

Eric @18 - it could well be Richard Shindell. I know for a fact he's recorded that song.

#21 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 05:04 PM:

The comments on the video say it's a group called Cry Cry Cry, and that Shindell is the singer. Credit here is a good idea.

#22 ::: Laurel Krahn ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 06:20 PM:

This version of James Keelaghan's song "Cold Missouri Waters" is from the album Cry Cry Cry by Cry Cry Cry (a group consisting of Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, and Dar Williams). The three folk artists got together and recorded an excellent album of cover songs in 1998.

#23 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 07:16 PM:

The song was the first thing I thought of when I heard this story, as well. I posted it to my Facebook wall this morning. Couldn't find a video I liked attached to the Cry Cry Cry version (which was my introduction to the song, and to its writer James Keelaghan - I couldn't believe Richard Shindell didn't write it himself, as it's exactly the type of thing he does just as well), so I found a version of Keelaghan singing the song himself.

Either way, it's powerful, and never fails to make me misty even when it's not attached to a tragic event such as this.

#24 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 07:24 PM:

When it finally dawns on you that a monstrous natural thing is bearing down on you, there's nothing more terrifying because, really, nothing can help you. Only chance. Only circumstances breaking your way for no particular reason at all. I'm so sorry for those poor lost souls.

#25 ::: Rick Albertson ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 07:35 PM:

I have fought fires, and I have been shot at. All things considered, I'd rather get shot at than fight fires. Make of that what you will.

Because, let me tell you: fighting fires is one of *the* scariest things that anyone could ever hope, or pray, or fear, to do... or not to do.

Except that when you're a firefighter, not being that or not doing that is precisely what you are *not* supposed to do.

Which is why I call them heroes. And, at least for today, everybody else is too. As well they should.

Greater love hath no one than this; and they gave the last full measure of devotion, each and every one.

May flights of angels sing them to their rest.

#26 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 09:00 PM:

And if death is the end, if death is all;
If there's no God, no angels, and no souls,
Then still they died fulfilling human goals
Striving to help and answering the call.
Wanting to live, but knowing they could die,
They fought the fire, and saved all that they might,
The lives of friends, or strangers, as is right,
And died as heroes, here beneath the sky.
Nineteen of them, all different, all unique,
Making their human choice, to help, to stay,
For different human reasons, they came through
Were there where they were needed, were not weak,
But did the work required of them this day,
And died as well as people ever do.

#27 ::: Rick Albertson ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:46 PM:

(And thank you for those very well written words, Jo.)

#28 ::: Ericka Barber ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:57 PM:

Oh, thank you Jo! That's perfect and perfectly beautiful.

#29 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 12:18 PM:

Jo, that's perfect.

#30 ::: Jennifer Baughman ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 12:37 PM:

Beautifully written, Jo.

#31 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 12:47 PM:

Jo, you've got me in tears.

#32 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 02:06 PM:

Thanks, Jo.

If, when I die, it is said of me: "She did the work required of her", my shade will be happy.

#33 ::: Manny ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 07:56 PM:

My grandfather was an LA fireman. When he retired, he got a job as a forest ranger (for the USFS). Most of the time he did basic camp management and policing, but when there was a fire, he'd be gone for days and my grandmother would sit by the phone greyfaced with worry. My grandmother was not the phone-sitting type, so that made a big impression on me. He wasn't even a smoke jumper, just a regular ground guy.

#34 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 12:38 AM:

Fires are scary, scary beasts. I've only seen small wildfires up close and personal, and that's more than I ever want to deal with (again).

#35 ::: Nina A ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 12:54 AM:

Jo, that's extraordinarily lovely.

#36 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 04:05 PM:

In a town I used to live in, there was a house fire; the firemen turned up, put it out, rescued those who needed rescuing, checked everyone was okay. It turned out to be a ... massage parlour ... and the firemen were made very welcome there for some time afterwards :-)

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