To the Hotshots Who Died, from Your Sister. ~ Jenna Penielle Lyons

Via on Jul 11, 2013

photo taken at the West Fork Complex fires by Jenna Penielle Lyons

Photo taken at the West Fork Complex fires by Jenna Penielle Lyons

I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that almost the entire crew died at once.

I can’t imagine what I would do if my Hotshot crew died and I was the only one to survive. I love them like brothers.

I’ve spent the past three years fighting fire, and two of those years included working for Snake River Hotshots.

Hotshots are weird people–some would call them a rare breed. I never imagined that I would become a Hotshot; at 105 pounds and 5’4″, a former ballerina, and as a 19-year-old college kid who enjoyed yoga and nerding out on literature, I was hardly a prime candidate for the job. But somehow, I gained about 25 pounds, started hiking, and decided that firefighting was something I would enjoy.

However, Hotshotting isn’t all about physical strength; though I spend my winter months lifting, backcountry skiing, going to Corepower yoga, and running in order to stay fit for the work I do, I think Hotshotting is more about mental strength—who can dig for 16 hours straight and still laugh the entire day?

The Granite Mountain Hotshots could. I’ve worked with them.

When they died working on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, I was working on a fire in Colorado (pictured above). Plumes rose into the air like leagues of angels. The sunset blushed from all the rosy infraction of blood red sun and smoke. It was a day like any other, and we were getting ready to bed down for the night. Some crew members picked up a random spot of WiFi with their iPhones, and the first story in the newsfeed was the story about the Granite Mountain Hotshots fatalities. We were all relatively speechless.

The next day, we woke up and were given a chance to drive down into Del Norte, Colorado to call our families and tell them that we were alive and safe. My mom was crying when I called her. She stays at home alone during her summers off of elementary school administration while my step dad and me fight fire.

Being a Hotshot is not a glamorous job, but it is the most fun I’ve ever had. Most people don’t know what we do because they only see structure firefighters out in the public. We spend our time in remote, rugged regions that are away from the public eye or the news. We don’t do the same job as structure firefighters. Most of the time, we do not run through flames. We never run into blazing homes. We do not jump out of planes; those are smokejumpers, and they are another elite group of wildland firefighters.

Hotshotting is the hardest job I’ve ever had—and probably will ever have. Most Hotshots—and the Granite Mountain Hotshots are no exception—spend May through October away from their families. We have two days off every 14 days to rest and recover. Most of us do not work from the middle of October to the beginning of May; however, if you ask any Hotshot what he or she likes to do during those months off, you could get a variety of answers. Some of us go to college; many of us enjoy more skiing than should be allowed; some are married and have children and spend their time off parenting; some are bachelors and travel to exotic places; many enjoy hunting, and some spend the winters and spring seasons ice fishing or painting or running dogsleds. Mostly everyone on my crew is some sort of outdoorsman. I’ve never met such a diverse and unique group of individuals.

If you are a gypsy or a nomad, Hotshotting may be the job for you. When we are working, we usually wake up at 5:45 a.m., make coffee, and then begin a long day of hiking, running chainsaws, digging, and checking ground for firebrands, heat, or potential fuel that can burn in a wildfire. We hike a lot. We dig a lot. We sleep on the ground outside, and we eat thousands of Clif bars.

We carry around two gallons of water in our packs. Sometimes we go to a remote ridge without phone service and sleep up there for 14 days so we can be closer to the fire’s edge. We usually do not shower for 14 days at a time. We drive wherever the fires are; we are constantly moving. We wear the same boots, yellow button-up shirt, and green cargo pants for the entire summer.

We are trained to do all of these things, and we enjoy doing them—even when it is hard. We are trained to enjoy pain. The lactic acid burning your legs on a hike…that’s a sign that you’re doing it right. We are trained to recognize unsafe situations, to create constant and evolving safety zones and escape routes, and to avoid excessive levels of risk. We are trained to turn adverse situations into opportunities to have fun and do some good in the world.

And we respect each other. I would give my life for anyone on my crew because I know that they would do the same for me. Oh yeah, did I mention that I am the youngest member and only girl on the crew? It doesn’t matter because we are all equal, and they are my brothers. I love them and I look up to them.

After the Granite Mountain Hotshots died, I looked at my job differently. I wondered how it happened—how the wind and fire could have changed so quickly and unexpectedly. The entire Hotshot community was thrown for a loop when that incident happened. The day of the memorial, we sat at 11,000 feet and listened to the C-SPAN live feed of the service. I watched 19 men sit in complete silence for two hours, obviously contemplating the tragedy at depth. Whatever happened at Yarnell Hill, those men died doing what they loved. Before they died, I can almost guarantee they were laughing and joking with each other; that’s what we do because that’s the only way to make that job fun. I can guarantee that the muddiest, darkest, and blackest 19 cups of coffee were made that morning, and I’m sure, like most Hotshots, that they looked at the sunrise and took a sip of that ebony nectar like it would be their last. We all do, ritualistically, every morning.

You could ask any Hotshot what makes him or her the happiest in life, and I can almost guarantee this answer, in this order:

“Family. Fighting Fire. Skiing. Coffee.”

I’m proud of what I do. I’m proud of the Granite Mountain Hotshots because I know what they did every day. When I came home from Colorado for my two days off, people kept asking me if I was a Hotshot because they finally recognized my uniform. And with more pride than I ever had said before, I answered, “Yeah, I am.

To Brendan McDonough, the one Granite Mountain Hotshot who survived, I hope you continue fighting fire if that is what you loved doing. I love you like a sister, and I send my most heartfelt blessings out to you. I cannot imagine the pain and loss you are feeling, and if I could take that weight off your back, you know that I would do so. Your survival offers hope to everyone in the Hotshot community. I send my blessings and love to the city of Prescott, Arizona.

To all the rest of my brothers and sisters out there, keep doing what you love. There will be a big coffee fire to enjoy together when this is all said and done.

To learn more about the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and to support the families of the firefighters who died, watch:

Subscribe to elephant journal’s Walk the Talk Show, free for now.

 Ed: B. Bemel

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About Jenna Penielle Lyons

Jenna Penielle Lyons was born in Portales, New Mexico among sage and sand. Raised in Pocatello, Idaho among the black rock and juniper, she grew up wandering in cowboy boots, running, riding bikes, skiing, climbing, painting, and studying classical ballet. She is a scholar of English Literature, a poet, painter, photographer, musician, and outdoorswoman. She winters in Missoula and spends the summer working for Snake River Hotshots. She is a lover of mountain bluebirds & elephants, tea & good coffee, Carl Jung, Salvador Dali, skiing, climbing in the desert, yoga, harp music, and sagebrush. Her favorite foods are borscht and any combination of chocolate and cayenne pepper. Check out her work and follow her adventures at her website.

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33 Responses to “To the Hotshots Who Died, from Your Sister. ~ Jenna Penielle Lyons”

  1. Alison Colyer says:

    What a wonderful piece of heartfelt writing. Thank you.

    • vincent cabral says:

      Awesome array of words.I too work ten season w/forest service in socal region 5.although on a engine I had many friends in the shots.long work and living on the land.may god bless these fine men and also bless all shots and and firefighters out there!thank you for sharing this….

  2. Dave says:

    Thank you Jenna. People need to know. They need to know the why and the how, and you described for them. We in Prescott are mourning the loss of our boys, and your perspective is insightful and full of genuine feelings. Stay safe out there.

  3. Amy says:

    Thanks for writing this, I couldn't agree more. Have a good rest of the summer and be grateful (on even the gnarliest of hikes.)

  4. FrankCarroll says:

    Quite astonishing. Very nicely done. I was a squaddie on the Santa Fe. Loved every dirty dusty smoky mile. You'll never forget any of it…………

  5. Linda Torgerson says:

    Thank you for sharing. Eloquent. Thank you.

  6. SJIHC says:

    Very nice piece about what is like to be a Hotshot.
    Thanks.

  7. Uma Simon uma simon says:

    Wow! You are some girl!

  8. Calvin Moses says:

    I agree, those were some of my best memories and also some of my worst memories. The extreme change from boredom to being terrified for your life in an instant was a crazy thing to experience. But looking back through colored glasses it was all fun until you get an eye poked out. NorthStar – 88-89, Chena 89, Midnight Sun 91-92. You are right about brothers though some of the guys are still friends through all the years. No one knows the life of a hotshot except a hotshot. Back in the day we had no 2-1 work rest ratio. 22-36 hour shifts were not uncommon and working 21-30 days was also not frowned upon. Good memories and god bless you who are on the front lines. Trees, rocks, poisonous insects, lightning, poison oak, and not to mention the fires, are all dangers to look out for. Keep your head up and your SA up. Honor your Brothers and Sisters. Thanks for writing such a great piece. God bless the Granite Mountain Hotshots, their families and also to help Brendan see that he did all he could do and not blame himself.

  9. Joseph B. Stewart says:

    Jenna, greetings from Prescott, Arizona. Thank You so very much for your post. I have to agree that it was not only well done and heart felt but that it is an accurate depiction of the several hotshots with whom I've had the pleasure to associate. Thank you for your continued dedication and service in keeping the rest of us safe. And keep laying those lines, jbs

  10. Cindy Button says:

    Very nice. My husband was a smokejumper for 34 years and now my son is a jumper and my daughter is on an engine. I was on a pumper crew in the 70s. I will never get over this loss of lives. I hurt for their families and for their horrifying death. Thank you for your words. I am so concerned for Brenden. My husband lost friends on the South Canyon Fire. Be safe out there and be OK with letting it burn, it is not worth your life.

  11. Carl says:

    Strong Work… Thanks

  12. @jmoxam says:

    Hi Jenna, its me Jackie. I sent you a pic of my dogs and were so awesome to send me some chocolate, tea, beads and art. Thank you for that. Thank you for writing about Hotshots and painting a picture of what it's like and the incredible bonds that form between people living and working in such extreme conditions. I'm happy I found you and your writing – you're quite a girl. Stay safe out there.

    • Jenna Penielle Lyons The Lyoness says:

      Thanks Jackie! Thanks so much for reading and being a loyal member of this readership!

      Blessings,

      Jenna

  13. Suzi Lewis says:

    Dear Jenna, thank you for taking the time and passion to write this. I honor you and your co-workers very much. And will keep all of you in my prayers for safe journeys. Blessings, Suzi Lewis

  14. Daniel says:

    Beatifully written, Jenna.
    Thank you for that opening line, it is exactly the thought that I keep thinking over and over: I can't believe almost the ENTIRE CREW died at once. Of everything I've read about the tragedy, you are the first to write the simple truth – that it's impossible to wrap your mind around the fact that almost EVERYONE on a hotshot crew can be gone, just like that.
    I worked for the Flagstaff hotshots for two seasons and the Lassen for three. As I hotshot I was aware of my own vulnerability – a snag could fall on me, there could be a vehicle accident, etc. But that my entire crew could die was never really a consideration. I worked with too many amzing people to imagine all of that strength, intelligence and ability – all that life in it's prime… just disappearing.
    Thank you for writing this. I can't tell you how nice it is to hear the words of a sister. It's infinitely more valuable that all the attempts by the media – no matter how well intended – to put what happened in perspective.
    Stay safe.

  15. Deborah Pfingston says:

    My son was Andrew Ashcraft he was one of the 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shots lost. Your writing was perfect and beautiful. I pray that all of the Hot Shots around the world get a pat on the back and told they are awesome. I in turn would love to give all of them a hug so I can smell Andrew again. I loved his smell when he would return from a fire – I pray I never forget it.

    • Jenna Penielle Lyons The Lyoness says:

      Hi Deborah!

      Thanks so much for the note. I know this must be a very hard time for you and your family. I wanted to let you know that we are all here for you…I can't imagine how you must feel right now. Thanks for being an awesome fire mom! This life is short…you'll get to see Andrew (and smell that beautiful smokiness) soon!

      Blessings and Love,

      Jenna

    • anita says:

      God Bless you Deborah…praying you continue to be comforted. I am so sorry for your loss.

    • Calvin Moses says:

      God bless you and keep you. Please know that we are praying for you and for the rest of the families. I to remember the look on my mothers face when I would get back after fire season, I know she worried about me but I always tried to call her and let her know we were okay. She was a strong woman who believed that we will all meet again on the other side. I too believe that and I pray that you all who grieve, that you will find some happiness in knowing that like Jenna said, our time on this earth is short and we will all see our loved ones again. God bless you all.

  16. Susan says:

    Thank you, Jenna, for sharing your experiences and thoughts on this Hotshot way of life and the people who are called to it. I cannot imagine the loss that you and your brother/sisterhood of Hotshots are feeling, let alone the pain that Brenden must endure. I witnessed my husband die from a wasp sting. There was nothing that I could do. I know that I will never "get over it", but I am adjusting to it. My prayer for Brenden and all of you is that in time you will be able to focus on the incredible bond and celebrate the wonderful moments that you all shared …the memories and the love never die.

  17. Robert Templin says:

    You nailed it. El Paso county Wildland crew. Be safe.

  18. @Dlarosa13 says:

    Thank you. As the wife of a Wildland Firefighter this really hit home. Thank you for this piece and thank you guys for the work you do.

  19. Chris Jackson says:

    Thank you Jenna!! I couldn't have said anything better myself. You know it was a very surreal feeling coming together with crews I never met before and listening to the service. Never will I forget that afternoon, sitting at Red Mountain Ranch, with Alpine Hot shots, El paso Wildland, overhead, and our two rigs from National. It was a very quite, somber afternoon we all grabbed are lunch and huddled around the Division sup's truck to listen the live stream. I only really knew my crew, and Iwas working with the other crews for a short time. During the time we listened to that audio feed, we became one. Agency's, patches, qualifications, shot crew vs engine crews; all of it went out the window. We where a family of one, brought together under unforeseen circumstances. Its my first season going out national this year, and to hear about this in the same briefing you did is something i will never want to be apart of again, although it could easily happen again. The way I fight fire has a new look, has a little more thought into it.

    I am humbled that I can say,I met the author of something that touched me so personally. My goal is to become a hotshot( I gave you the opportunity to fulfill that, you just had to trade places with me in camp, since you needed to go to pagosa). I hope all is well and I hope you where able to make that interview!! If not, then I hope I see you out there again!

    Stay safe sister!!
    Chris

  20. Tracy Gossert says:

    Thank you Jenna for this beautiful tribute. My son Brandon is a Mill Creek Hot Shot. We honor all of you who have chosen this career and Pray for your safety. I too pray for the families of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots who lost their beloved sons, brothers, friends, daddy's and uncles. They will never be forgotten. Angels around you and all of the Hot Shot teams. God Bless!

  21. staci collins says:

    This was truly beautiful Jenna! As a former Hotshot for the Lagrande IHC here in Eastern Oregon, it moved me to tears. Your words were so powerful and completely accurate. It made me want to go back next season! Such an incredible piece of writing. From one sister to another thank you!

  22. Greg Podsiki says:

    As an old helicopter-tac crewman from back in the 70's in Alaska I couldn't have said it better! You hit the nail on the head. Keep up the good work.

  23. Kris B says:

    Makes my heart ache. As the mother of a former hot shot, and the mother of a USAF PJ, I admire the heroes that fight the daily battles, behind the scenes, no one knows who they are, but we appreciate each and every one of them. Thank you .

  24. Elizabeth Simonson says:

    With tears in my eyes I send a heartfelt thank you. As the mother of an Idaho Panhandle Hotshot I have such a great respect for all of you – you are true heroes. Just talked to my son tonight and they were resting for a few days after being out on the Lolo fire. My heart is always heavy before I talk to him, but once I do I am reminded just how much he loves his job and his crew. Please be safe – from on proud mother.

  25. Jan K says:

    What a great and powerful tribute. I , as your grandmother, am so proud of you. Be safe.

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