July 11, 2013

To the Hotshots Who Died, from Your Sister. ~ 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:

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 Ed: B. Bemel

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