We lost 19 of them, each one doing what they love: Trying to stay ahead of a wildfire roaring up the mountains. It turned on them,  swept over them.

Yarnell wildfire  © David Kadlubowski / Associated Press / June 30, 2013

Yarnell wildfire © David Kadlubowski / Associated Press / June 30, 2013

We should all die doing what we love.

But no one should die huddled in a tinfoil tent, hearing the teeth of death grinding up the landscape, breathing smoke into their last-ditch shelter.

It’s hard to understand what drives a soul to fight fire with a spade and chainsaw, even taking in the after-fire gratitude.

The fire that swept over them roars on. The sun will come up tomorrow and beat relentlessly down on the houses with the empty beds and empty chairs and lonely plates and cups–

Those empty spaces will jerk back wives and children, mothers, fathers, siblings to a reality they did not ever want to have to think about or talk about or explain to children who cannot fathom the length of forever so keep asking. The patience of the bereaved weighs heavy as they repeat the horrible words until they themselves believe it: “never coming back.”

I do not believe the simple answer “God has a plan.”  Unquestioned plans do not allow for anger, they demand subservience. Even Moses fought with a burning bush, demanding explanations. But bone-deep, I understand laying down your life, risking it all,  because you wanted to save a mountain, save a house, save your own soul with a spade and chainsaw.

These firefighters  and the others, live the life that matters.
Even now, you matter.

* * *

Quinn McDonald lost her studio in a fire in 2003, but firefighters saved the  rest of the house and cats. They ran toward what others run away from. She will always be grateful.


26 thoughts on “Firefighters

  1. younger son, now 30, has been a firefighter for 8 years for the city of Pittsburgh. Each day, I ask the angels to surround him and his crew members. They are first responders…first ones at the scene of accidents as well as fires….

  2. That was a beautiful memorial Quinn. Those guys are the real America heroes. It was so sad to wake up to this tragic news. I’m glad to hear that your cats were safe.

    • We have spent many wonderful afternoons in Yarnell, and I am heartbroken for the families there. My cats were saved by firefighters many years ago, and they still don’t like the smell of smoke.

  3. Pingback: Firefighters | Hell in a Handbasket

  4. Beautifully written, Quinn. I have 2 brothers who are firefighters who have often been in treacherous situations doing what they love fighting fires & saving lives. I empathize with the families of these young heroes. May they find peace.

  5. Firefighters are indeed a special breed of humanity. I lost 3 family members to a house fire nearly 30 years ago. Their brother and uncle was a firefighter at the time, but in a nearby town. Once the fire scene was secure, the forces from both towns took shifts sifting through the charred ruins, searching until they found the surviving husband’s wedding ring. Our family has never forgotten the extreme dedication and kindnesses extended by those firefighters. Special, indeed.

  6. This event led the news here yesterday morning Quinn . . . such a tragic event.

    This god that has a plan . . . is it the same one that took a 3 month old baby last week because another angel was needed? I wrote ‘where did the joy go’ on my blog after that funeral that I didn’t believe in that god . . . somehow it doesn’t fit. It’s a tragic event that deserves far more than a platitude, even though said for comfort. It deserves our tears and an aching heart for those grieving.

    • I always think (and it’s just my way) that attributing tragedy to a god that has a plan but doesn’t let us see it is a cop out. It doesn’t let us sit with grief and feel it. That fire has now burned 5,000 acres and right now, it can’t be stopped. I can’t shrug it off with a bumper-sticker thought.

      • Absolutely . . . even as a child I can remember being puzzled that natural disasters we referred to as ‘an act of god’ . . . yet I was supposed to believe in this god as being a forgiving, magnaminous enitity. Those quite opposite qualities, and my independent mind, set me off on a pathway not expected by the adults around me.

        • That path is rocky, but very satisfying to walk down. It lends itself to being very un-religious and still very spiritual. Seekers reject pat, bumper-sticker answers, but enjoy the mystery of seeking.

  7. Hi Quinn, thanks a lot for your post
    I watched the news on this tragedy on TV here in Brazil and I thought of you. Your post is very beautiful, thanks for always having words when tragedy strike us – even when it happens far away, in the other side of the world, we always are aware and we are are affected.

    • There is a strong bond among women, I think. Women know loss and helplessness and death so much more personally. Not just because we give birth, but because we lose so much.

  8. Quinn, thank you for writing about the loss of our HotShots. I live just outside Prescott and our community is absolutely devastated. There are no words to express about this loss. These men had just successfully fought the Doce Fire right outside outside Prescott the week before with no loss of homes or people. Like you, I came close back in 2002 when the Indian Fire happened. I was living in the forest on the opposite end of Indian Creek Rd where it started. Cats and important items evacuated safely. When you undergo something like what has happened here, it really causes you to assess. From my 2002 experience I ended up using it as a springboard to write a chapter titled “What Really Matters” in my last book “Standing Stark: The Willingness to Engage.” Again, thank you for what you’ve expressed.

    • You have lost so much. You are not alone. But it will get worse before it gets better. I always got angry when people said, “It’s just things.” Things are mementos, carrying emotions and plans. They are the tangible evidence of our lives, and they are important.

  9. Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean, is about a forest fire tragedy in 1949 Montana.

    “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky, but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”

  10. It is a tragedy. We have seen it on TV even in Australia. That good people lay down their lives to protect others can only be testament to the abundance of love in a world that often seems quite the opposite. My thoughts go out to those families who have lost loved ones.

  11. So beautifully written, Quinn! My heart breaks thinking of these brave firefighters huddled under their fire shelters. And my heart breaks for their families and friends.

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