Q&A: Telling the Story of the Yarnell Hill Tragedy

A supporter watches in 2013 as hearses carrying the 19 fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots pass by on State Route 89. | Courtesy of Kathy Montgomery

Three years ago this month, the Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, and that tragedy continues to resonate in Arizona and elsewhere. 

Many have questioned how it happened and who made the call that sent the firefighters into danger — but in her new book, The Fire Line, Fernanda Santos is asking, instead, what inspired those 19 men to stay together in the face of a wave of flames.

An immigrant from Brazil, Santos isn’t the typical New York Times hire. She worked in New York for seven years and moved to Arizona with her husband and daughter in 2012 to become the paper’s Phoenix bureau chief. She covered the Yarnell fire for the Times, and that led her to report and write The Fire Line, which became available in bookstores May 3. Arizona Highways talked with Santos about her new book. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Could you tell us a little about what the book is about?
I covered the [Yarnell Hill] fire for The New York Times. The most interesting question, to me, was: Why is it that the 19 firefighters, when faced with a wave of flames, decided to stay together? And to understand that question, to answer that question, I had to answer a lot of other questions. I had to first and foremost answer the question about who they were. Once I started pursuing who they were as people, I understood I also had to learn about wildfires. What are they? How do they burn? How do they burn in Arizona, in Central Arizona? What is the connection between fires and monsoon storms? How did the decades of density and mismanagement, some might say, of forest — decades of allowing forest to overgrow and fires to be put out the moment they start — influence the behavior of the fire that day in Yarnell? It just became too many questions to be answered by a newspaper story or a magazine story, and that’s when I realized that I had a book in my hands. My focus was on the people, on the human aspect of the story. I like to say that it’s a story about people that happens to have fire as its setting. It’s not a reinvestigation of the fire.

Tell us about your reporting process.
I started reporting it as soon as I started reporting my stories for The New York Times, although I didn’t know at the time that I was reporting a book. My first steps, I should say, were not necessarily acquiring information that answered questions, but it was raising the questions. I had a little notebook in my bag. I carry it everywhere I go. The notebook those days of the fire, I had questions like: How long ago had a fire happened in Yarnell? What are monsoons? So I had these types of questions that, later on, helped guide my reporting.

I set out to meet the men by meeting their families. I made various efforts to meet all of the 19 families, which I did. Some I met early on in the process, and it was an easier connection. Others I had met only after I wrote letters to them, which is my way of saying: I know where you live, but I’ve made a choice not to knock on your door. I wanted to leave them in control, as much as they could, of the terms of our encounter.

I also took two courses at the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy in Prescott. That’s where a lot of the hotshots trained or taught. I wanted to understand how the bond among firefighters is formed, the weight of the tools they carry, the toil that digging fire lines involves. I also spent a lot of time with meteorologists, learning about weather, and I traveled to five different states to meet the families and also visit the National Interagency Fire Center, which is the sort of mother ship of wildland firefighting in this country, where resources — crews and aircraft — are allocated to different fires when many fires are burning at once.

I wanted to understand the job and the people so that I could explain to other people, and the only way I thought I could understand was to actually engage in elements of the job that these people do. I don’t think that the knowledge I would have acquired in this case by reading stuff or talking to people would have been enough to truly understand and be able to explain, with the depth that I wanted to explain, what this job was about.

What was the biggest challenge in reporting or writing this book?
I would say there were two challenges. One was to be a woman, an immigrant, a non-Arizonan, and to break into a world that’s still primarily a men’s world — still, obviously, an Arizona world, because we’re talking about a crew that was based in this state, made up primarily of people from the state — and to have them believe that even though I was an outsider, I could understand them, relate to them and faithfully tell their story to readers, so that people would understand the life they lived and the job they did.

The other challenge was simply the emotional challenge of writing a story like that, when you meet mothers and fathers and widows and children, and you get to like them as people. You get to like the men who died as people. I had to kill them all over again as I was writing my book, because they were alive when the book started, and there comes a point when they die. It was very difficult for me to do that, because I understood the pain of losing them a little bit from the perspective of the families I had met. So that was the second challenge, was just dealing with the emotions and using them to help me write, but also keeping them under control so that they wouldn’t blind me to the story.

What’s the most important lesson that you learned reporting this story?
It was a personal lesson, and it is that wildland firefighting is a job that is not done by one person alone. In fact, it cannot be done by one person alone. It’s a job that requires teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, and I think that I was awoken to the fact that increasingly, these days, we’re so focused on ourselves. We track the number of followers on Twitter or how many likes you got on your Facebook post, or the selfies you take when you go places. We’re so turned to the individual, when in fact, if you stop to think about it, every single thing we do is done with the help of other people.

As I was reporting this book and writing this book, I understood that what the crew believed in, which is that we’re only as strong as our weakest link, was really true. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with, and it’s all about giving them a chance to work with you to accomplish something great — not to get the individual gold medal, but the team gold medal. It sounds a little corny, but I really do believe in it.

Why should people care? Why should they read this book?
Every year, around this time of the year, young men and women are out there fighting fires. We see the big plane dropping fire retardant on the flames, but what we often don’t know or forget is that right there where the fire’s burning, there are men and women who are using construction tools to build firebreak in the forest, fire line, to keep the fire from reaching a community. That’s important because these men and women are kids we know. They may be our neighbors; they may be the kids our kids go to school with. They are kids who are essentially our future, and we should care about it, because fires are getting bigger, they’re getting hotter, and they’re being heavily transformed by climatic conditions, by years of mismanagement of forests. Therefore, the job has become much more dangerous for these young men and women, so we owe it to them.

We also should think about it from the perspective of citizens, especially for homeowners in places that are on the edge of wildland. What can we do, and what should we ask our neighbors to do to help in the job of protecting ourselves and therefore protecting these men and women who fight fires? If they don’t have to deal with the intense pressure of saving homes and communities, then their job becomes less risky, and the likelihood of something horrible happening to them is lower. So it’s everybody’s concern.

— Molly Bilker

Fernanda Santos' new book, The Fire Line, is available online and at major booksellers. To learn more about Santos, visit her website.

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