Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Remembering fallen firefighters

I find it odd that in the wake of the tragedy in Yarnell, Ariz., where 19 hotshot firefighters lost their lives trying to protect property, the world continues like nothing happened. Although the flags are at half staff and the communities of Prescott and of firefighters mourn, we should take notice and light a candle and cry out to those who suffer, “You are not alone.”

The real tragedies with their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, and their absurd want of meaning remind us of the sheer brute force of life. Subsequently we continue with our lives as a means of self-preservation.

In seeking the truest definitions of heroism we look to the actions of these men who ran toward a raging wildfire and who will never again return to their families. They were individuals driven to extraordinary lengths to preserve the lives and property of their fellow citizens; they understood that every mission might be their last.

Members of an elite unit, they were trained to hike for miles across remote, difficult terrain with 40 pounds of gear including shovels, hoes and similar implements to the edge of the fire to try to establish cleared lines that will stop the fire's spread. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were caught by an advancing wildfire near Yarnell, the town they were trying to save, when flames overran them. It was mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew.

What did they die for?

Hotshots put on a yellow shirt, carry 40 pounds of gear and put themselves on the flank of a fire where no one else will go to save the place you love. They are trained to be the best of the best and are not supposed to take their last breaths inside the oven of a foil shelter, facedown on hot ground, gasping through the roar of a blowup.

But relative to the question as to the why of their deaths, every homeowner whose homes they went to save owes these fallen men an answer. More than ever, wild land firefighters die for people’s summer homes and year-round retreats. They die protecting property, kitchen views, dreams cast in stucco and timber. The Hotshots were sent as the advance guard of a tricky fire to protect a former gold-mining community that had become a haven for retirees.

No one should die to save a house. These men should not have been put in that position. Yarnell had already been evacuated; the hotshots were lost trying to save not lives, but houses. Homeowners living in wildfire-prone areas shouldn’t expect their highly flammable properties to be rescued during extreme fires.

I see parallels in Yarnell to the Vietnam War. The insane rules of engagement, putting young men in harms way for misplaced motives, and the 19 body bags draped with American flags remind me that young lives are never expendable.

I read Norman MacLean’s book, “Young Men and Fire.” It chronicles the 1949 Mann Gulch wild land fire in Montana where 13 hotshots perished. Wagner Dodge, one of the survivors commented, “The fire exploded, forming itself into whirls sounding like a freight train coming out of a tunnel. The wind created spinning fire funnels, it was a blowup with a solid front nearly 300 feet deep and 200 feet tall, a roaring 2,000-degree monster chasing the men up the mountain with the speed of a tornado.” The men died by suffocation as it burned all the oxygen out of the air.

I went to Mann Gulch years ago and all that remains are concrete crosses where the men died.

The older I get the more difficult it becomes to understand the occurring tragedies of life. But I know the 19 hotshots killed last week are with the Lord and all their tears have been dried, and I pray that their families are given comfort and grace.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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