Andrew Ashcraft, 29
Robert Caldwell, 23
Travis Carter, 31
Dustin Deford, 24
Chris MacKenzie, 30
Eric Marsh, 43
Grant McKee, 21
Sean Misner, 26
Scott Norris, 28
Wade Parker, 22
John Percin, 24
Anthony Rose, 23
Jesse Steed, 36
Joe Thurston, 32
Travis Turbyfill, 27
Billy Warneke, 25
Clayton Whitted, 28
Kevin Woyjeck, 21
Garret Zuppiger, 27
We have known their 19 names since early Monday, July 1, 2013, but we can never know what fears swept over them in their final moments. Did they know they were going to die in that horrifying split second when the fire they were fighting near Yarnell, Arizona suddenly turned on them? Or did they believe their fireproof shelters would save them? We do not know because none of them survived.
All we can say with certainty is that they never had a chance, and they were too young to die.
In Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean's gripping account of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, Macleanlikens the last walk of 13 smokejumpers to Christ's journey to the cross. At Station 14, He is laid in a tomb from which he will rise three days hence.
We want to believe that they, too, have risen from their darkness.
Maclean, who had fought forest fires in his youth, spent the last 14 years of his life trying to explain to his own satisfaction what happened in Mann Gulch on the afternoon on August 5, 1949. He was still trying in the months before his death in 1990. In the end, all that he really knew was that 15 of the Forest Service's finest had jumped into Mann Gulch, and only three lived to tell about it. BobSallee, who was only 17, and Walter Rumsey, 21, literally outran the fire. But their crew boss, Wagner Dodge, 33, must have known he could not outrun it because he bravely lit an escape fire, then laid down in its ashen circumference moments before the main fire swept over him.
Dodge later told investigators that the fire's updraft lifted him off the ground several times before it passed. The melted hands on James Harrison's pocket watch said that the end of time arrived at 5:56 p.m., one hour and 45 minutes after the jumpers had entered the skies above western Montana's Missouri River.
If there were watches among the 19 who died at Yarnell, the exact time of their late Sunday afternoon deaths has also been fixed. Those who died in Mann Gulch had their last gasps for air sucked from their lungs by searing heat before the fire swept over their fallen bodies. Autopsies will hopefully confirm that death's Merciful Angel took the Yarnell 19 in the same sudden way.
The dead were all members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hot Shot Crew, based at Prescott, about 30 miles from Yarnell, a tiny retirement community that was once a gold mining camp. Unlike the 78 mostly skid row bums - some shoeless - who died fighting the Great 1910 Fire in northern Idaho, these young men were well-trained and well-equipped professionals. They knew what they were doing, and they knew the risk.
But no amount of knowing or doing can account for nature's vagaries, and certainly not the vagaries of wind-driven wildfires; so while there will surely be an exhaustive investigation, we can never satisfy our deep desire to have tragedy explained in a way that has Tragedy lose. We will still be sifting these ashes long after they are cold, but all they will tell us with certainty is that 19 young men are dead and the fire that killed them will soon be gone too.
It is my privilege to be included in an email tree that connects 40 or 50 Forest Service retirees who, though now in their 70s and 80s, remain true professionals - throwbacks to an earlier time when the U.S. Forest Service was often spoken of in the same breath as the United States Marine Corps. In fact, several of them were Marines. I got my first email alert from them at 6:56 Sunday evening. None of us slept until past midnight. By then, our worst fears had turned to sorrow and soul searching.
Every one of these men has extensive experience with wildfire. A few are real experts. But they aren't the type to shoot first and ask questions later. Nor will they second guess their younger brethren, but in the fullness of time, I am certain they will offer some suggestions, dare I say wisdom, for further reducing the enormous risks hot shot crews face on fire lines in the West's decrepit forests.
Knowing them as I do, I suspect they will speak to us from 30,000 feet because when this tragedy is viewed from above it is possible to see what needs to be done to avert even greater tragedy in the future. I'm confident they will remind all of us that, first and foremost, public property ownership connotes public responsibility for bearing the costs of property maintenance and care.
Most forest land in the West is federally owned. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are the federal agencies responsible for caring for these forests, and they are doing a terrible job of it. The reasons why are many, and all of them are explained in great detail on our website, www.evergreenmagazine.com but the unassailable truth is that those who represent us in Congress bear ultimate responsibility for this tragedy because they are the ones who have created the regulatory nightmare that has become a very lucrative feeding ground for lawyers representing environmental frauds and fakers who oppose every fateful attempt the Forest Service and BLM have made to care for the public's forests and rangelands.
What is urgently needed is a congressionally authorized and funded thinning program designed to reduce forest density to a point where so-called "prescribed fire" can be safely reintroduced for the therapeutic ecological benefits it provides. Congress will need to declare its program to be legally sufficient to protect it from the swarm of lawyers that will surely descend upon it.
Because 125,000 square miles need treatment - an area larger than 46 of our 50 states - this process will take at least 50 years and probably more; and when we are done, we will have to start all over at the beginning, thinning and burning, thinning and burning. It is the price of public ownership, and a constant reminder that where caring for forests is concerned, there are no silver bullets.
You can learn more about the hard work that lies ahead by reading "The New Pioneers," a special issue of Evergreen published in the summer of 2002. You can download the PDF file from our website.
In the days to come human nature will send most of us off in search of our own personal connection to this tragedy and those who perished in it. Perhaps we knew one of them, or someone who knew one of them. I don't think I did, but I do have a deep connection from a different time and place.
In May of 1972, 91 miners died in an underground fire of unknown origin in the Sunshine Mine in northern Idaho's beautiful Silver Valley. Of those who died from smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning, 14 were hometown friends. So far as I know, their deaths mark the greatest mining tragedy in U.S. history. An exhaustive federal investigation followed, and all that could possibly be known was documented in thousands of pages of reports, none of which can explain how, 41 years later, their disappearance from my life still hurts like hell.