Montana Wolf

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Truth Be Told: The Granite Mountain Hotshots

She stood apart. I imagined the ancient alligator juniper always had, but this Spring Equinox day her prowess was even more pronounced as she rose from charred landscape; stood stately along a wash that flowed with recent rain. Almost two years had passed since the Doce Fire swept through the urban Granite Mountain Wilderness, compliments of a cowardly shooter and incendiary targets. The fire ripped over mountain ridges destroying 6,767 acres of wild lands. It was my US Forest Service supervisor who contacted the Granite Mountain Hotshots to alert them to the tree's significance. At least 1000-years old, she and another alligator were the largest in the country. Flames would have taken this tree had it not been for the Hotshots named for her Wilderness. While some secured a fireline and removed ladder fuels at her base, others climbed with water bottles to dowse a burning limb. They strode away hoping for the best. Days later the Hotshots would abandon the safety of their mountaintop black zone and perish in a firestorm on Yarnell Hill. One of twenty would survive; the lookout, affectionately called Donut, would live to tell the tale. Or not.

"Oh my gawd Dave --- Yarnell just blew up." Summer temp employees for the USFS, we were collecting campground fees with an eye to the surrounding forests in the wake of lightening-fed thunderstorms. We had already called in one lightning hit when the Yarnell inferno, thirty miles south, turned on a dime and moved towards town. In its path were nineteen men who had mysteriously descended into a incendiary dry brush box canyon. I was haunted. I didn't buy the shallow explanations. "Fog and friction?" God's "other plan?" Convinced of deeper truths, I sought information and wisdom from sources who intimately knew hotshot culture and had faced climactic situations. I came to believe that someone ordered those men out of the safety of the black on Yarnell Hill. So it was, with these intuitions, I hiked to the tree. I longed to sit under her seventy-foot canopy, in quiet reverence with the unspeakable events that had unfolded on Yarnell Hill. This Grand Dame was one in a long line of arboreal entities with whom I had sought solace over the years.  I don't have to tell you, she was riled. She wanted to know, as did the world, What happened to my boys? I penned a thirty page article and put it away. I moved to the Pacific Northwest but the final line of the article persisted in my brain: There is no grace without truth.
Lawsuits were filed; I waited for revelations to surface.

I made a return sojourn to the tree last month, Spring Equinox, March 20th. Fifteen months after my last visit, I was surprised to find a stone and mortar monument at her eighteen-foot diameter base. It was a memorial to the Hotshots but it seemed too big, too close, strangely out of proportion. It didn't mention the historic and biological significance of the ancient tree. I couldn't help but wonder if their memory was better served by the myriad photos of them laughing, hanging from her branches, building a human pyramid. Or by the symbolic kerchiefs that hung at her base; the quartz heart geoglyphs that etched the dirt.

I climbed to a vantage point above the tree. Ravens drifted against the azure sky, a falcon with a kill perched on a far-away boulder. Someone had planted a crystal-like angel on the hilltop, her wings spread, as if protecting the tree. It was solar powered, I guessed to illuminate the night. An angel dreamcatcher I mused, to catch the truths that passed in the night. To snag the answer to who gave the fate-full order to descend into hellfire.

I traversed down the hill and back to the tree. I sat spread-eagled on a horizontal limb and leaned back, my eyes on her branches above. I was lost in reverie about the time I heard bees. Lots of them. I followed the sound to the tree's inner sanctum, where several limbs spread apart and begged to be climbed. No more. I smiled. Angels come in many forms. Grandmother Tree had bees to protect her. She was doing just fine.

Stirred several times to tears, the day brimmed with the spirits of the men who saved her. All the while I kept hearing her voice: We are closer to truth. And we were. A story broke within a month. Donut had confided to his Wildland Division Chief Daryl Willis last October that he had listened in on the Granite Mountain Hotshot radio channel and heard an argument between Superintendent Eric Marsh and Captain Jesse Steed. Eric supposedly ordered Jesse to bring the men to his position, down the hill to Boulder Springs Ranch. Jesse resisted the order to lead the crew out of the ridgetop black where they were safe. But the power dynamics were complicated. Jesse was Superintendent that day since Eric was assigned Division Supervisor. Jesse was a natural leader and seasoned ex-marine; Eric was a founder of the Hotshots; both were revered by the crew. We know who won that disagreement. The final exchange:

"We're not going to make it," said Jesse.
"I know. I'm sorry," responded Eric, as he rushed toward his crew.

They deployed their emergency shelters in a very tight area as flames bore down, devouring forty years of dried thickets at the rate of one hundred yards in nineteen seconds. It takes nineteen to twenty-five seconds to deploy a fire shelter. 

The ancient tree was correct in her foretelling. Some truth has shaken free, but Donut and his confident/Daryl Willis have not come forth. Imagine a closed clam with a lawyer perched on top. If Eric Marsh was below the mountain at the Boulder Springs Ranch, why was he there and why did chain of command not know he was there? Was he ordered there? Someone knows the how and why.

The plaque at the base of the sacred tree ends with these words -- 

"... This tree represents their devotion to the job and the survival of their memory. It is in their honor, all twenty of the crew members, that this plaque and the alligator juniper are dedicated to their legacy. Esse Quam Verderi." 

Esse Quam Verderi: To be, rather than seem (to be). 
Paraphrased: it is better to be something than to pretend to be something.
An interesting choice as it pertains to truth. 
What seems "to be" is that the truth of June 30, 2013 remains elusive. 

There is no grace without truth.

Night time visitors.

Solar powered angel overlooks the tree.

One A-J expert says she could be as old as 1800 years. 

Recovering landscape

Cross at the base of the tree.


  1. Wonderful, heartfelt piece. Such a loss. Thanks for the pics and the words..

  2. Regrowth comes to Yarnell as well, because nature recovers. But the people of Yarnell, myself one, are slower to recover not only their own losses, but the 19 also. We'd all like to know the truth. I am glad to hear the Grand Dame still stands tall.

    1. Blessings to you and the special village of Yarnell, Gaelyn. May there be healing for all ... human hearts, landscape and spirits that dwell ...

  3. Granite, like the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is tough. It takes a lot under most circumstances to break it or create a crack in it's surface. Now a crack via the repeated pounding of questions, is occurring. That fissure, forced by the seeds of new information, will widen and truth will out. Thank you Christina for contued chipping and chiseling on this subject. May this spring be the one that brings forth the flowers of facts.

    1. Apt metaphor, Jeanne. And as our friend Leonard Cohen sings: "That's how the light gets in ..."
      Thank you, Christina