EDITOR'S NOTE: We recently received this essay and photo from Carole Marie Gowan, an agricultural science teacher at Nimitz High School in Irving, Texas.
The Nimitz High School Forestry Management class studied wildfires and their effects on wildlife, forestry, and environmental conservation in the fall of 2018. Part of the curriculum involved learning about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and many of the students were inspired by the tragic true story. These students came together to inquire about how they could travel to Yarnell, Arizona, to experience Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park and give back to the community. Thus, the Nimitz Viking Hotshots club was created.
The Nimitz Viking Hotshots spent a year raising money for their trip and even won a $2,500 grant from Irving Schools Foundation. To help prepare for their outdoor adventure, the group attended a Hiking Basics workshop put on by R.E.I., where they learned basic wilderness first aid and the importance of nutrition and hydration when hiking long distances. Part of their fundraising efforts involved purchasing a commemorative brick with funds raised by their club to support the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group.
On November 21, the Nimitz Viking Hotshots set off for their long-awaited adventure. The club flew to Phoenix, Arizona, and drove into Wickenburg late on a Friday night. On Saturday, students hiked 7 miles through Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park, stopping to learn about each of the 19 men who perished in the fire and learn more about wildland firefighting. Students left a class set of poems on the Tribute Wall just before hiking down to the fatality site.
Sunday was spent hiking 5 miles to see the Great Alligator Juniper Tree in Prescott, Arizona. Students were excited to see this tree, as it was highlighted in the movie Only the Brave, which they watched in class. After that hike, students traveled to the Pioneer Home Cemetery to visit the graves of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Lastly, students had the opportunity to explore the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew Learning and Tribute Center, where Arizona State Parks Community Relations Administrator Ken Sliwa met with the kids to teach them more about the tragic events of 2013.
Perhaps the most memorable experience about this outdoor adventure was the compassion and hospitality shown by the townspeople of Yarnell and Prescott. Chuck Tidey (president of the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group), Ken Sliwa and Bob Brandon (retired Peeples Valley fire chief) went above and beyond to meet with our students to share firsthand accounts of the fire and its impact on the local communities.
The lone survivor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Brendan McDonough, also played a vital role in my students' education. I was able to read excerpts from McDonough’s memoir, My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire's Lone Survivor, as we traveled throughout the same wildlands the Hotshots worked as recounted by McDonough.
This trip was equally as rewarding for me as an educator as it was for the students. I was privileged to witness the deep level of compassion, empathy, and determination of teenagers who came together for a cause much greater than themselves. In my opinion, this is the most important experience I can give to students. To teach them to be compassionate human beings far exceeds the benefits of any scientific knowledge I can instill in their brains.
Agricultural Science Teacher at Irving Nimitz High School
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly listed Bob Brandon's former position. He was a fire chief in Peeples Valley, not Yarnell.