The Fire Line by Fernanda Santos

BookThe Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting History, Fernanda Santos, Flatiron Books, New York, 2016


On July 6, 1994 a fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, claimed the lives of fourteen highly trained and experienced firefighters when a forest fire exploded and turned on the firefighters as they tried to contain the blaze. Surely the lessons learned from the Colorado blaze would prevent the scenario from being repeated.

Almost 19 years to the day, on June 30, 2013 the news raced across television and computer screens around the world. A forest fire had claimed nineteen lives. Newspapers carried the story on their front pages. Television stations carried special coverage. The 19 dead were members of the Prescott, Arizona Granite Mountain Hotshots. They were trained, they were physically fit, they knew the terrain and the dangers and yet they were still overwhelmed by the fire. The 19 deaths amounted to the greatest loss of life for firefighters in a wildfire since 1933 when the Griffith Park Fire in southern California claimed the lives on 29 firefighters.

Questions were raised by those who had been ‘on the line’ and by others who had never experienced the terrors of fighting or fleeing a wildfire. How could it happen? Were these men trained properly? Were they over-committed to the fire? Did they not know?  Those questions are among the thousands to be asked in the months following the horrific blaze. 

But perhaps the more important questions are; could it happen again? And could it happen in Pennsylvania? Without a bit of doubt the answer to the questions in both cases are yes.

As a young firefighter, I remember a class in structural firefighting and the instructor telling us, “If we could fight fires like Chuck Noll (then coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers) plans for and plays a football game we would never lose a firefighter, a civilian life, or any property.  The coach knows who he is playing and when the game is going to start. Firefighters do not have that luxury.” How right he was. Firefighters seldom, if ever know where or when they are going to be called into action. It may be a balmy spring afternoon with clear blue skies, or in the middle of a cold dark night when the alert tones go off, sending men and women into the maw of one of the harshest environments known to man; a place where one misstep or wrong decision can cost lives. Firefighters face constantly changing conditions and they can be certain that no two fires are ever alike, and there is no such thing as a routine or normal fire.

In fighting wildland fires, wildfires or forest fires as they used to be called, conditions can change in an instant, when the weather changes or the wind shifts, a new fuel load comes in contact with the blaze or the fire reaches a topographical change. The fire can explode from a smoldering incipient fire to a raging inferno in seconds, trapping firefighters and others in the path. Leschak puts it succinctly when he says, “The nut is that fire, like its sibling weather, can be notoriously unpredictable.”

Fernanda Santos is the Phoenix Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Her compelling work and diligence in research combined with her easy-to-read writing style makes this book one that every firefighter and their families should read. She speaks of the 19 crew members in a personal tone; of their hopes and dreams; of their cohesion as a team. She doesn’t lay blame or point fingers. This is the story of 19 members of an elite firefighting group, how they worked together and how they died.



The Future of Pennsylvania Forests

As I head into the 21st Century with my book project, I am looking for what the greatest threats to the forests of PA might be. Fire will be near the top of the list. Insects, homegrown and invasive can exacerbate this. Other threats might be global warming – making the spring and fall fire season start earlier and last longer, invasive plants – Japanese knotweed, stiltgrass, tree of heaven, forest fragmentation and the suburban-wildland interface. Any comments on any of these topics is appreciated.