If T.S. Eliot had lived in Arizona, he might have declared that June, rather than April, is the cruelest month.” He chose April, as I recall from some long ago English class, because it gives false hope. June has its false hope as well—cool nights and early mornings with brittle blue skies—but the relentless heat of the days soon takes over one’s being, and the days plod along towards the real hope, which is, finally, traditionally, RAIN!
And June is fire season in the Southwest, another cruelty, a double-edged sword. Fires have long been part of the cycle of life here, but, as human beings are wont to do, we got in the way of nature, let the dry brush pile up, built homes further and further from town, and then a spark in the parched world brings a conflagration.
We were lucky here in Patagonia. Our fire in May was actually close to what nature might have intended. It burned itself out with a lot of help from expert fire fighters. And those firefighters were fortunate. They worked incredibly hard under extreme conditions, and the outcome reflected their skill and dedication. No one was injured. No houses were lost. Habitat was destroyed, but the natural world is more accustomed and adaptable to fire than we are.
There were two Hotshot crews that came to Patagonia to fight the Soldier’s Basin fire. I was privileged to meet members of the Ironwood team just before they went home on their last morning. I still have vivid memories of their faces warmed by the morning light and their easy, friendly manners, their boots, hats, sunglasses, and T-shirts proclaiming their affiliation. Oh, yes, and their physiques. These young men work out all the time. They run and walk for miles with heavy packs, so they are prepared for fire fighting in the wilderness. What they do, the way they go about it, give them heroic stature.
Lightning started a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, on June 28. When I heard at the end of a newscast that 19 members of a Hotshot crew had died, I selfishly prayed that it was not the men from Ironwood. That would have been too close, too tragic. So, in a small way I was relieved that the dead were not familiar. But I realized that these firefighters are a tightly knit brotherhood. They share each other’s pride and suffering. Their training keeps them safe 99% of the time. That sliver of chance is a reality with which they all live and sometimes die.
The Yarnell fire was fierce and fast moving. It burned through neighborhoods in the small town. The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was caught when the wind split the fire, which surrounded them. There was no escape. They died doing what they all loved to do.
My interest in and regard for these brave men led me to read each obituary, and I found myself quietly crying as each one portrayed a man who was loved and respected for all kinds of positive qualities: humor, kindness and love of life being most evident. I have put them in a special corner of my memory.