The Hero Myth of Wildland Firefighting


In 2017, Columbia Pictures released a box-office film called “Only the Brave.” The film is an emotional, fictionalized account of the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013, during which 19 firefighters — the entire Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew except for one lookout — were tragically entrapped by wildfire.

In their last hour alive, with the fire racing toward them, the Granite Mountain Hotshots inexplicably left a safety zone — in this case, a ridgetop that had already burned to ashes. Why they did so remains a matter of dispute, but the box-office film depicts the team’s leader, Eric Marsh, as saying “we’re the only crew in position to save these homes” over the radio. It also depicts crew members complaining about being in the safety zone rather than fighting fire.

However, there’s no evidence of any such radio communication between Marsh and his crew. What’s more, whether the crew was displeased about their position at the ridgetop is pure conjecture, because nobody on the ridgetop survived. And leaving a safety zone downwind from the flaming front in order to protect homes would have been a violation of standard firefighting protocol.

The fictionalized scene offers a false narrative of the tragedy, a narrative I call the hero myth. Whether on the big screen or in front-page headlines, the hero myth is remarkably consistent: Wildland firefighters selflessly battle deadly blazes to protect the public from nature’s unyielding wrath.

Newspaper coverage of wildfires contributes to the hero myth by favoring spectacle. Even moderate wildfires are called “apocalyptic,” “hellish,” and “terrifying.” Since 2018’s exceptionally rare fire tornado during the Carr Fire, news outlets have been quick to exaggerate any small vortex of fire — a common phenomenon of wildfires — into a fire tornado.

In my own experience, when I tell people that I used to fight wildfires, they often react with horror or awe, or thank me for my “service.” The implication is that fighting wildfires is dangerous and terrifying — a personal sacrifice on par with that of a soldier going to war. They mean well, and I appreciate their gratitude, but the sentiment is misguided in a couple of very important ways.

For one, wildland firefighting is not as dangerous as the media tends to portray it. In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, calculated per equivalent full-time worker, the rate of fatal injuries among firefighters was about the same as the average fatality rate in the U.S. workforce overall. This metric lumps municipal and wildland fatalities together, and according to the U.S. Fire Administration, wildland fatalities are far fewer than municipal fatalities. Fishing, logging, piloting, roofing, and driving are all more fatal than firefighting. Yet wildland firefighter deaths are national news, while the deaths of roofers or loggers are not.

When firefighters do die, it’s usually not by being engulfed in flames. In 2017, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which develops national wildland fire operations standards, released a report on wildland firefighter fatalities concluding that 51 people died in entrapments by fire between 2000 and 2016 — 19 of them in the Yarnell Hill Fire. Over the same time period, more people died in aircraft and vehicle accidents or by heart attacks.

But perhaps the bigger problem of the hero myth is that it misconstrues the very nature of heroism. As Kyle Dickman notes in his book about the Granite Mountain Hotshots titled “On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It,” the terrorist attacks on 9/11 brought firefighters to a war zone. The first responders and firefighters of that day were surely heroes: people called to higher acts of valor and self-sacrifice than the duties of their station required. But as Dickman noted, the word firefighter has remained synonymous with hero ever since, even though no subsequent fire on American soil has been a war zone.

Therein lies the rub: The heroes of 9/11 saved victims of an act of terrorism that the public could not have planned for or mitigated. That’s why they are heroes. But wildfires, unlike acts of terrorism, can be planned for and mitigated.

The implication is that fighting wildfires is dangerous and terrifying — a personal sacrifice on par with that of a soldier going to war.

Climate change, poor forest and ecosystem management, and irresponsible construction of homes have all contributed to the current wildfire crisis. Climate change has dried out the air in the Western U.S., which in turn has reduced the amount of water stored in the tissues of plants, making forests in particular more flammable. Meanwhile, the housing market has favored wilderness areas. From 1990 to 2010, 43 percent of new homes were built near the edges of wilderness areas, a zone termed the wildland-urban interface. Many of these homes are not fire-safe, but built from flammable materials in proximity to flammable vegetation.

Every time somebody thanks me for my service, it reminds me that this wildfire crisis was preventable. Half a century was squandered in the response to climate change. While Congress funded wars, the U.S. Forest Service couldn’t afford to both fight wildfires and manage fuels to reduce wildfire severity, so wildfires became more severe. The public could protect their homes before wildfires threaten, but often, they don’t.

I speak for many wildland firefighters when I say it’s not really heroic to fight a problem that could have been averted with responsible policy. Most fatalities that do occur are not heroically tragic, but rather, just tragic. The Granite Mountain Hotshots didn’t perish while saving innocent lives, or even homes. They perished in the middle of nowhere, for reasons most wildland firefighters will not claim to understand.

Exaggerating the deadliness of wildfires props up the myth that wildfires are invincible. Invincible wildfires cannot be mitigated, and so the myth engenders inaction, but inaction will make wildfires worse. And, ironically, as wildfires get worse, inaction will put the lives of wildland firefighters at greater risk. It sometimes seems to me that proponents of the hero myth exaggerate the deadliness and heroism of wildland firefighting on purpose, as if to avoid change.

I would like to see that change, and I would like to see the hero myth put to rest. That means acknowledging wildfires are not apocalyptic monsters, but natural phenomena that can be managed — as they have been by Indigenous peoples for millennia. It means combatting climate change. It means ending the false equivalence between wildland firefighters and 9/11 first responders. Lastly, it means thanking a neighbor for getting their house fire-ready rather than thanking a wildland firefighter for their service.

Emily Shepherd is a freelance writer covering wildfire and wildlife conservation. She worked for eight years in conservation followed by two years as a U.S. Forest Service hotshot.