We’ve just watched a harrowing video which recounts the tragic events of the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire in which 19 of the Granite Mountain Inter-agency Hotshot Crew perished when they were overrun by a raging wildfire, an incident which goes down in history as the deadliest for American firefighters since the September 11 2001 attacks, which killed 343 firefighters.
In the deafening silence, the words of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew boss, Eric Marsh, in the closing moments before he and his crew were overcome, seem to hang in the air.
Division Alpha: “Yeah, I’m here with Granite Mountain Hotshots, our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush and I’ll give you a call when we are under the sh-, the shelters.”
ASM2: “Okay copy that. So you’re on the South side of the fire?”
Division Alpha: “Affirm.”
Repeated attempts by Incident Command only minutes later to raise Marsh went chillingly unanswered, and the realisation finally sank in: they were gone.
For many people in that silent room, another realisation sank in: just how deadly serious is the business of wildland firefighting.
The two-day basic wildfire suppression course comes in the closing weeks of a gruelling training season, and it is for most of the VWS new recruits the final hurdle before being certified competent to do what they signed up for: like the Granite Mountain Hotshots, get onto the fireline and directly engage with wildland fires.
Throughout the gruelling hikes and firefighting scenarios in which we’ve participated in the last five months, our VWS trainers have been patiently yet indefatigably insistent that learning fire safety theory – the 10 standing fire orders and 18 watch-outs – parrot fashion serves no purpose. Watching the tragedy unfold at Yarnell Hill brings this remorselessly home.
The realisation also dawns why we must engage with and understand the detail and nuance of all our training – fire safety theory, wildfire suppression theory, firefighting skills including pumps, hoses and hand tools, GPS navigation, and communications.
So too does the need for peak physical fitness and endurance become obvious. It’s not good enough to just squeak in within the time limit for the international firefighting fitness assessment: carrying a 20.5kg pack over a 4.8km course within 45 minutes at a walk, no running permitted.
All that proves is that you can meet the minimum standard. Performing well and safely on the fireline presupposes that your physical fitness, stamina and endurance is maintained at a peak throughout fire season, which although it officially starts today, Wednesday November 1, has already seen three deployments for VWS crews: the Grabouw, Twelve Apostles and most recently, Glencairn fires.
Although operational periods are typically 12 hours in extent, circumstances dependent, many deployments commence with an arduous hike in to the fireline, up to 12 hours or more on the fireline, followed by an equally arduous hike out, and that’s assuming you don’t also spend the night out on the mountain, in often freezing cold conditions.
Peak physical and mental conditioning are clearly essential, because firefighting is a team undertaking, and like a chain, a team is only as strong as its weakest member.
On Saturday October 28, 39 new recruits were inducted into the VWS family, ready and eager to take on the wildfires we know will soon ravage the Cape Peninsula. The principal firefighting agencies are already gearing up for a daunting fire season, exacerbated by the drought and a lack of water for aerial fire suppression. Which means VWS crews will be in increasing demand to tackle fires head-on, the very thing for which we have trained.
Although we’ll probably never know what decisions and actions led to the tragedy at Yarnell Hill, it is the post-facto analysis of this and other catastrophic wildfires – the 1994 South Canyon fire in Colorado in which 14 firefighters lost their lives, and most recently, the massive wildfires which ravaged Northern California – that informs the constant revision of fire safety standards, practices and procedures internationally, with a single focus: the safety of firefighters who daily put their lives on the line in an environment where the margins of error are razor thin.
On Friday this week, the VWS family, in full uniform, will attend a screening of Only the Brave, the recently released movie which tells the tragic story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, as we pay tribute to the bravery and selflessness of fallen comrades.
Only the Brave opens on Friday November 3 at NuMetro Cinemas, Canal Walk. Bookings open today, Wednesday November 1, through any of NuMetro’s channels: 086 124 6362, www.numetro.co.za, or at any NuMetro cinema.