By Brit Rosso – Director of the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.
June 30th 2017 – The fourth anniversary of the Yarnell Hill fire, where we lost 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. A few weeks back I was asked if I could write something about Yarnell Hill to post on the fourth anniversary. I’ve been struggling ever since to come up with the right words to honor our fallen.
After some deep thought about this opportunity, I’ve decided to share a letter with you that was sent to me a few weeks after Yarnell Hill. I used to work with this letter’s author before coming to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. He was not a firefighter. He is now retired, out enjoying life. At that time, he asked me to share his letter with the families of our fallen Hotshots. I, in turn, shared his letter with a member of the Prescott Fire Department to pass on to the families.
Here’s a condensed version of this man’s letter. In honor of our fallen, I now share his words with you:
This is an open letter to the families of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew—all twenty members.
I am a biker. On June 3, 2013 I was camping on some U.S. Forest Service land near Happy Jack, Arizona.
After sleeping on the ground beneath the stars, I’m looking forward to a hardy breakfast at a nearby small café. I think it is called the Long Valley Café. But I’ve always called it “Happy Jack.”
The fire trucks parked out front do not register in my mind. I am only thinking of coffee and hot food. As I walk into this little restaurant, I see a whole bunch of firefighters. I see one waitress moving quickly and I can only imagine how long it will take for my breakfast to arrive. I whisper to myself: “This is a big mistake.”
The waitress is very fast. The next thing I know, coffee and water is on my table. Time is on my side, so I relax. I begin to look at the young men next to me. They appear to be very well fit, happy, and enjoying their breakfast with enthusiasm. Secretly, I hope there are a few eggs left over for me. They all look like they could be movie actors. They remind me of my son.
When the waitress hears my order—eggs over easy, hash browns, with corn beef hash—she writes it down and pours more coffee. The young firefighter next to me says: “That’s what I ordered. It was very good.”
I see this as an opportunity to make small talk. “What fires are you coming from?” Many of these firefighters quickly begin to talk at once—informing what, where, and how they left the last fire.
I am impressed. “Where are you going now?”
“We’re going to fires in New Mexico,” they say. I tell them that I just came from New Mexico and that two days ago there was severe lightning and rain. I tell them that I like their shirts with the words “Granite Mountain Prescott Fire.” This image sticks in my mind. I wish them well and say: “Be safe.”
The firefighters get up, move toward their trucks, and are gone. But a young man comes back into the cafe and simply says: “Thank you, sir.” At the time, I thought he must be a bit homesick. I appreciated his comment immensely.
On July 1, 2013, the headlines immediately caught my attention. Nineteen firefighters die in Yarnell, Arizona. They are the elite Hotshot Crew from Prescott, Arizona. I read slowly knowing that the guys I met earlier were part of the Granite Mountain crew. Maybe this tragedy involved another crew?
The words became harder to read, but I continued. Toward the article’s end, my eyes see the words: “The elite firefighters are known as the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew.” They are the same guys I had breakfast with at the café. Tears fill my eyes. My wife comforts me, but does not really know why I’m so upset. I tell her about my connection to these young men.
Even now, days later, I cannot stop seeing those young firefighters in my mind having breakfast at that small cafe. To their family, my tears do not stop and I send to you my most heartfelt condolences.
To the survivor of the twenty-person Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, “Thank you. I am so proud of you and your service.”
Make sure you find a way to Honor the Fallen every day.