The lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire

Brendan Mcdonough survived the Yarnell Hill Fire, the only of of the Granite Mountain 19 to do so. Since he was posted as a lookout, he was not with the crew at the time the fire changed directions. He was ordered to leave his post, and he did. Why wasn't the hotshot crew ordered to leave as well? That question is still unanswered.

Listening to his interview is chilling, and reminded me of the many fires I'd been on and the potential for things to go wrong. At  the time, I trusted my supervisors. Now, I wonder how many close calls I had that had the potential to be far worse.

Former firefighter arrested for arson

Another former firefighter has been arrested for starting not only wildfires, but structure fires, too. This happens more often than one would like to think. I've always thought that people who love firefighting have a fascination with fire, and some cross the line to being so obsessive as to start their own, but I'm appalled it took them so long to catch this guy.

The problems with fire shelters

Anyone who is following the controversy behind the deaths of the Granite Mountain 19 has probably asked the question at least once: Why didn't the fire shelters save their lives?

When handed one of the first prototypes in 1977, my crew and I all were skeptical, and swore we would run rather than deploy. We also resented having to carry more weight, which slowed us down and meant carrying less drinking water - downright deadly when firefighting in the desert southwest. That skepticism prevails among fire crews today.

The original fire shelters were designed to withstand temperatures of 500 degrees F. Considering forest fires can reach temperatures up to 2000 degrees - what's the point? While we have the technology to build a better fire shelter that can withstand these high temperatures, they would be weight prohibitive, adding 40 lbs. to a firefighters gear. That is an unreasonable amount of weight to carry in addition to gear and water when you are trudging up steep slopes.

Researchers are working hard to come up with a better option without all the weight. The safety of firefighters on the line is more than carrying a better fire shelter, however. Had communications between the fire boss and the Granite Mountain 19 been better, someone would have recognized sooner they were in a dangerous place, and removed them before the tragedy hit.

Video of Granite Mountain 19s last few minutes chilling

This video, posted on Wildfire Today, makes the tragedy all too real.

It's quite apparent that management thought they were in a safe zone (the black), when it fact they were not. Seems to me that as important good communications are, they were sure lacking in this case. When overhead questioned the Hotshot's location, why didn't anyone ask them where they were?


Women in men's jobs

Over thirty years ago, a man on my fire crew told me women should be “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen”. I hated that comment then, and had no qualms telling him he was a chauvinist.

In the Sunday, November 10th, 2013 issue of Parade Magazine, the article “Women Vets: A Battle all their Own” by Barry Yeoman, sounded like something straight out of the 1970’s.

Not unlike my battle in the Forest Service, sexual harassment is common in the military – where nearly 20% of women experience some kind of sexual trauma. You’d think after all this time, it would get better. Apparently not. Stacy Keyte was also told by a noncommissioned officer where her place was – kitchen, condition and shoeless. Eryn Sepp, deployed in 2007, made an excellent point. She said the sexual harassment was one thing, but what really bothered her was that men thought everything she did was somehow inferior, just because she was female.

Young women today need to understand that this behavior should be taken seriously. I’ve read that many women in their 20’s don’t make a big deal out of inappropriate comments even when in an office situation. It doesn’t matter where you work. If you are being treated less than equal because you are female (ditto for racial or religious stereotyping) you must speak up and make it known this treatment will not be tolerated.

Recent comments via email:

 Linda Strader seems to be just the kind of woman I admire--feisty, well-informed, and not afraid to speak her mind!  Since I'm older than dirt, I've seen it all, especially how most women suffered discrimination in some form or other. Here are some examples: 1. My mother, who taught in rural schools,  lost her job after she married in 1930, a common invent which did not apply to men when they married. Years later, she decided to get a college degree--and was turned down by 2 institutions before she found one that would take an "older" woman. She spent many  fruitful years teaching--and "subbed" until she was 89 years old!   When I went to college in the 1950s, I applied to the College of Education at a highly respected university--and was advised to stay home and raise my children. After I protested (with vigor), I was finally admitted to that school--and spent over 30+ successful years teaching English  in high schools and college. Fully employed, the first time that  I applied for a credit card, in the 1960s, I was told that I couldn't have  one unless I got my husband's permission!  Aha!  After a steamy interview with the "boss,"  I was granted one, however. Given these few examples, I can say that women have a long way since the good old days. Today's women face other challenges, of course. My advice?  Stand up for yourselves and speak out!

Replacing the fire shelter?

A new product is on the horizon.

The SunSeeker Fire Blanket, created by James Moseley, is touted to withstand temperatures of 2500 degrees for 4 minutes. Compare that to the current fire shelter carried by fire crews, that can only withstand 500 degrees for 2 minutes.

What was it like being a woman firefighter in the 1970's?

Bill Gabbert publishes my guest blog. Read here on Wildfire Today.

Recent comments via email:

 I enjoy hearing about women who were pioneers in career fields and other areas. Sounds like a story I want to hear.

I've read Linda's first chapter and hope to see more soon.  It is charming and funny - and alarming at times.

First lawsuit over the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy

The recent news about the mother of one of the Granite Mountain 19 filing a lawsuit over the death of her son is not surprising. Certainly something went wrong that day. However, is anyone to blame for this?

Although I feel deeply for those who lost someone in the tragedy, the reality is they all knew the job was dangerous. If this lawsuit is won, the door will be wide open for more to follow. As one person commented on the Wildfire Today post about this news, it’s a dangerous job and these men knew they did not have the same life insurance coverage as permanent employees. I fully understand the dedication to their work – I loved my job too, and never for a moment worried about dying on the fireline. It was my choice, and I wanted the job no matter what the consequences. However, as a single woman back then with no dependents, certainly I did not concern myself with particulars like death benefits. If I had been married with kids - that's a different story.

Fighting wildfires means dealing with unpredictability. I learned a long time ago there is no fury like Mother Nature unleashed. Were these men sent into an area that was unsafe? As far as I can tell, being just about anywhere on a fireline has the potential to be unsafe. Where I fear this is going, is firefighters will stand and watch fires burn instead of putting them out. 

Backfiring on the Hog-Fong Fire 1977. Yeah, it was scary. But I accepted this as part of my job.

How do various firefighting jobs differ?

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between different kinds of firefighters? News media will often refer to Hotshots, Helitack, Smokejumpers, fire suppression crews, engine crews or just use the terms “wildland firefighter” or “firefighter”.

Each of these titles refers to differences in either training, the type of fires they fight, or in some cases, the location of the fire.

Hotshots are elite firefighters composed of twenty people. Although they are stationed in various National Forests around the country, their job is to fight fires wherever they are needed. They also are not relegated to just fighting forest fires in National Forests. As an interagency team, they may find themselves on state or other Federal lands, such as those belonging to the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. Native American tribes also may call on Hotshots to help with fires on their land.

Helitack crews are specially trained for initial attack (first on the scene) in remote areas not easily accessed either by vehicle or on foot. They fly via helicopter, and are usually dropped off near the fire. Rarely do they repel from a hovering chopper.

Many people assume all wildland firefighters are Smokejumpers. This is not the case. Smokejumpers are specially trained to initial attack very remote fires that even a helicopter can’t safely access, parachuting from an airplane. This dangerous job has unique training all its own.

Fire suppression crews are usually composed of only ten people. They are stationed on a particular National Forest at the District level, and will only go to fires outside of their jurisdiction if the need arises.

The term Engine crew can refer to wildland firefighters or structural firefighters, both of who use water to extinguish flames. However, structural firefighters have completely different training than those who fight wildland fires. The training is not only different because structural fires involve using ladders, but fire behaves very differently in each case. Burning buildings have the potential to collapse on firefighters at any minute, and have the dangerous backdraft phenomenon. Fire also uses up all the oxygen inside, and creates toxic fumes, requiring them to wear Scott Air Packs. In contrast, forest fires create their own severe weather, adding dangerous winds to the mix. Also, while structure fires are usually confined to a few hours, many forest fires can go on for days or weeks.

What all of these positions share is they are dangerous occupations. Why do men and women choose these careers? Most love the excitement, prestige and glamour. Risky jobs, yes. However, they are full of rewards both in a job well done, and earning the respect from people who appreciate their hard work.

Feeling the Need to Stay Till it's Out

In Robert Mutch's article Firefighter safety: Just leave the line, he argues the point that firefighters are still staying on the line past the point where it is safe to do so. Why? Because it's often assumed firefighters are there to put the fire out or save the home from burning.

I remember this happening to me on the Radio Fire, when the City of Flagstaff was threatened.

Although we were told in training that no tree is worth a life, we still tried to save the trees at any and all costs. Plus, wildland firefighters have no training in fighting structure fires. With more homes built closer to formerly wild areas, they are often called upon to protect homes.Someone needs to draw the line, or change the training.

Will the Truth be Told?

Contradictory information abounds...will we ever know the truth behind the deaths of the Granite Mountain 19? Lawsuits are being filed left and right. Public outrage at the news that the relatives of the victims would not be receiving the same benefits as full time employees was understandable, since many were unaware of current policy.  However, the reality is they were seasonal employees, and being a summer firefighter means you are a temporary employee. I know of no profession that pays temporary employees benefits. Should this be changed? Probably. Will it be? Probably not.

Many lives were lost this past summer, and this will most likely happen again. Firefighting is dangerous work. All we can hope for is to learn from mistakes, and do the best we can to avoid tragedies.

Over Thirty Years Later, the Problems Continue

The Tucson Weekly published an article recently about a retired woman firefighter, who faced abusive behavior while performing her job. Her lawsuit is still up in the air.

Reading this article brought back many memories. Not only did I have to deal with the same kinds of complaints from my crew, but some of my supervisors (also men) were not supportive. When I filed an EEO complaint against a man who outwardly discriminated against me, no actions were taken. The year after the complaint, I discovered that the complaint followed me to another National Forest, and I found myself  "blacklisted" from every being on a fire crew there. I, too, was labeled a troublemaker.

There is no doubt in my mind that this woman held her own at work, because if I could do it, so can she. I find it frustrating this continues. No wonder only 1% of firefighters in this country are women.

Hot Shots Died in Fire Shelters

Slowly, we are finding out more how these men died. Most of them had deployed their fire shelters, and died either of breathing superheated air, or from being burned alive.

No one can fully imagine what that must have been like.

I was working on the Santa Rita Suppression crew at Florida Work Center in 1977 when carrying fire shelters became mandatory. No one, including me, had faith in this addition to our gear. We believed that the time spent preparing the ground and deploying the shelter should be spent running... however, we all knew you can't outrun a raging, wind driven inferno.

It is also interesting to see articles about the difference between forest firefighters and structural firefighters. Throughout my career, I'd met a number of fire personal that specialized in structure fires. They were fascinated by my line of work, but had no desire to fight wildfires. I felt the same way about their jobs. I had no problem marching into a burning forest, but wouldn't be caught dead anywhere near a burning building.

The Granite Mountain 19 died defending homes in the fire's path. Should they have been there? Probably not. Wildland fire crews do not receive the same training as structural firefighters do, and do not have special breathing aparatus and other gear. Officials also blame a severe weather change. This should not have been a surprise to the crew, trained to anticipate weather and wind changes. Even though they had the required lookout, the only survivor, they should have also planned several other escape routes

The investigation will go on, but that won't change what happened that day. Hopefully this won't happen again.

Fire near Prescott, Arizona claims the lives of 19 Hot Shots

It’s a sad day in the world of firefighting. Yesterday 19 Hot Shots from the Interagency Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew died while fighting a fire near Prescott, Arizona.

This touches home for me. Although I never worked for the Forest Service in Prescott, I often considered applying for a position on the Prescott Hot Shots, which formed in 1972, the same year I moved to Prescott from Syracuse, New York.

Dying on the fire line never occurred to me while in that career. At such a young age, I probably thought it would never happen to me. Although I did have some close calls, fortunately that’s all they were.

This is a dangerous job. The men and women who fight fires deserve our respect and gratitude for putting their lives on the line.
Visit Wildfire Today for an excerpt from my book! Thanks to Bill Gabbert for his continuing interest and support.

My interview with the Green Valley News

Facing Flames: Adventures, Challenges of a Female Firefighter

Published in the Green Valley News on January 23rd, 2013, Ellen Sussman wrote about how I fought fires and fought against men's outdated attitudes to prove I was a productive, dependable member of the crew.

Just a couple corrections, however. The Box Fire was not in Florence, but in Box Canyon of the Santa Rita Mountains.

The Hog-Fong fire was over 50,000 acres.