ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Two years ago this week, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team of elite firefighters from Prescott, Ariz., were killed in the foothills of Northern Arizona. The Yarnell Hill Fire was one of the deadliest incidents for wildland firefighters in U.S. history. As the wind shifted and the fire closed in, the Hotshot's radio transmissions grew increasingly panicked.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: OK, (inaudible) Granite Mountain Hotshots. Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site. We're burning out around ourselves in the brush.
WESTERVELT: Today, there are still questions about what happened and what lessons can be gained from the tragedy. Kyle Dickman, a former Hotshot himself, has written a new book about the Yarnell Fire called "On The Burning Edge." He joins us now from Santa Fe. Kyle Dickman, welcome to the program.
KYLE DICKMAN: Thanks for having me.
WESTERVELT: Take us back to late June, 2013. Weather and winds shifted on the Yarnell Hill Fire. Nineteen of the crew were in the forest battling this two-day-old blaze when their commander had a huge decision to make. Take us through what you know about what happened next.
DICKMAN: So the fire was burning very intensely. It was burning to the north all day. And about 4 o'clock, a number of thunderstorms developed overhead. And the fire suddenly changed directions. There was 30- to 40-mile-an-hour winds that were put out, and what had been a relatively sleepy flank of the fire suddenly jumped and became, you know, 20-foot and then 30-foot and then 40-foot flames. And that wall of fire was rushing toward the town of Yarnell. And Eric Marsh, who was the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, was forced to make a decision. He had to decide whether or not he wanted to leave the safety of what's called the black, which is the already burned fuel, and move into the town of Yarnell where they could presumably to something to protect the houses. Or he would keep his crew in the safety of the black and watch this town burn. Ultimately, of course, he decided to move the crew back into the town of Yarnell, and they never made it. The fire caught them before they reached the houses.
WESTERVELT: There was only one survivor, Brendan McDonough, nicknamed Donut. How's he doing two years after this tragedy?
DICKMAN: He's still coping, you know. He lost 19 of his closest friends. I mean, he calls them his brothers. And his experience that day was also mind bogglingly intense. He was pushed off of his lookout. He was serving as a lookout, and he came very close to being burned to death. The investigators later found that if things hadn't have changed, he would've been the first casualty on the Yarnell Hill Fire except that he was swooped up by a guy in a four-wheeler and sort of rushed away from the advancing wall of flames. So it's not only that he's dealing with the survivor's guilt of being the only guy who survived from his crew, but he's also dealing with PTSD.
WESTERVELT: Of these widows and family members who spoke to you about the tragedy, does one family and their story stick out for you?
DICKMAN: Yeah. I think so. One boy's name was Grant McKee. He was the youngest guy in the crew. And Grant McKee was really hesitant. He didn't necessarily want to join the crew, and he didn't want to be a Hotshot. he wanted to be a paramedic. And so he had a really hard time sort of fitting into the - you know, to the rough-and-tumble culture of the Hotshot crew. And I think what touched me about Grant's story was watching him come into it, you know, so reluctant to join the crew and then, you know, go from being an outcast to being an accepted member and actually sort of falling in love with the job.
WESTERVELT: To some, this was bad luck and dramatic wind shift; to others, it was an unforgivable human error by the commander. Where do you fall down on this?
DICKMAN: I don't know that I would call it unforgivable, but I also would certainly say that it's a human error. I think more important than looking and dwelling on the mistakes that were made that day, I think it's worth taking a bigger picture perspective on what happened and asking ourselves, well, why did these men die? And what can we do in the future to prevent more wildland firefighter deaths? And I think many of the agency's answers to that is to invest more funding into technologies like better fire shelters, which at the last ditch, aluminum blankets that the men ultimately died under, and then also to equip some of the firefighters with GPS devices so that they can be tracked. But what we're not seeing a lot of is much discussion of potential policy changes.
WESTERVELT: And given America's long history of fire suppression and now severe drought in the west, wildfires have the risk of getting bigger and more destructive than ever.
DICKMAN: That's right. In the last 40 years, we've seen fire size increase sixfold. During that same time span, we've seen three times the number of - average number of houses getting burned every year. There are now 140 million people living in the path of fires. So the threat of fires is real. And despite spending 4.7 billion dollars every year, we're not seeing much evidence that that spending is doing anything to control fire size or destructiveness. What I would like to see is a larger percentage of that money going toward preparing for wildfires. So instead of spending billions fighting them, we should be spending, you know, billions preparing for them by thinning the forest, by using more prescribed fire, by letting more wildfires burn.
WESTERVELT: Kyle Dickman. His new book is "On The Burning Edge." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
DICKMAN: Thanks for having me.