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Granite Mountain Hotshots helped battle L.A.'s Station fire

Gregory G. Miller took this photo of Clayton Whitted, a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, as Whitted battled the Station fire in the hills above La Crescenta in 2009. Whitted died in last week's Arizona wildfire.
(Gregory G. Miller)

When the massive Station fire erupted in the Angeles National Forest in 2009, killing two firefighters, scorching more than 250 square miles and destroying dozens of homes, firefighters poured in from around the country.

One crew came from Prescott, Ariz. They called themselves the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

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“Their work saved our neighborhood, possibly our city,” Eldon Horst told the La Cañada Flintridge City Council last week, one day after 19 members of the 20-man team perished in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona.

The crew helped save Horst’s hillside home near the Angeles National Forest. They also built fire lines to protect Mt. Wilson Observatory, displaying the same selfless courage that marked the Yarnell tragedy, observers said.

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Hal McAlister, observatory director, paid tribute as news spread that the men had been overrun by the Arizona wildfire. He called them and other hotshots “the special forces of America’s firefighters.”

“Not only do they have an incredible physical capacity to work in terrain and under conditions most of us would consider nightmarish, they have a seriousness and devotion to the duty of protecting our wildlands found only in the special and thoughtful people that they are,” McAlister said in a statement.

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Freelance wildlife photographer Gregory G. Miller spent a day with the crew as the Station fire raged.

He headed for La Crescenta, where the flames were sending up clouds of smoke in the hills behind a neighborhood. He sneaked up a viaduct between houses and hiked until he reached firefighters. He hoped to take pictures of the crews in action.

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At first, it wasn’t clear whether they would let him. Firefighters from Glendale and Northern California weren’t keen on being photographed. If any of their faces were published, Miller was told, the photographed firefighter had to buy a case of beer for his colleagues. When Miller raised his camera, the firefighters turned their backs.

Then Miller approached Clayton Whitted, 24, a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Did the hotshots have the same policy about photographs?

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“In our case, I have to buy everybody ice cream,” Whitted told him with a smile.

But, Whitted added, he didn’t mind being photographed: He wanted people to see how the hotshots worked on the front lines of the fire, keeping the flames away from the city.

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“They really genuinely hoped they would save lives in Southern California,” Miller, 61, told the Los Angeles Times.

Miller spent the next eight hours near Whitted, talking and laughing. Whitted spoke about growing up in Prescott, a place he loved.

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He briefed Miller on how the team tackled certain types of fires and set up defense barriers. He explained the seasonal rotations of hotshot crews. He asked questions about Miller’s background.

One of Miller’s photographs captures Whitted sitting on a hillside, his face set in a thoughtful, determined stare across the landscape. Another shows hotshot Christopher MacKenzie, who also died in the Yarnell Hill blaze, crouching in the brush with a hand-held radio.

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Much of that day in 2009 was spent watching and waiting. The crew was visibly exhausted, Miller said. MacKenzie, a man of few words, told him they had barely slept in days.

At one point it seemed the flames had died down. Then Miller saw fire explode in the distance. The crew quickly began to assemble for a controlled burn to keep the fire from reaching the neighborhood below.

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Photographers and members of the media were asked to clear the area.

“OK, Gregory. It’s time for you to leave,” Whitted told Miller.

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Miller did as he was told.

In the years that followed, Miller would hear reports about hotshots moving into fire zones around the country. His mind always jumped to Whitted’s crew, he told The Times.

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On June 30, the day the Yarnell Hill fire overtook the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Miller was in the Grand Canyon shooting pictures of condors. The air surrounding his campsite that morning smelled of smoke.

Later that day, he got a call from his wife. She told him she believed Whitted was one of the hotshots who had been killed.

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Miller was devastated. He had spent less than half a day with Whitted, but said he felt he had known him for a lifetime – that was the kind of person Whitted was.

“I only knew him for eight hours,” Miller said. “But to be honest, when I heard, I cried.”

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devin.kelly@latimes.com

Twitter: @devckelly


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