My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor
As I began writing this review, the juniper fire in Arizona had been burning for more than a month and was only 30 percent contained. Wildfires were also burning in California and New Mexico. The nightmarish news videos cannot adequately replicate the experience of being in or near a wildfire. Brendan McDonough and Stephan Talty have captured the life experienced by hotshots in the pages of My Lost Brothers. This book will take you near the extreme temperatures as they soar ever higher. You will taste the sweat, ash, and dust endured by hotshots as they work to control and stop major wildfires. The book explains how fires grow, what atmospheric and geographic conditions contribute to that growth, and methods used to bring them under control in language that is not academic or boring. The most important purpose of the book, however, is to pay tribute to the nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30, 2013.
In 2011, nineteen-year-old Brendan McDonough became the youngest member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Formed in 2002, the group was the first wildfire crew to be associated with a city fire department. Eric Marsh, one of the founders, hired McDonough and was his supervisor. From McDonough’s perspective, Marsh’s most significant role was that of mentor. The respect Marsh earned in this regard is apparent throughout the book. In fact, the entire crew is given credit for their influence that contributed to McDonough becoming a capable man and firefighter. It should be noted that McDonough took initiative in reaching this goal for the sake of his daughter, who was an infant at the time he joined Granite Mountain. He willingly admits his past mistakes had reached critical mass and he needed to make a major shift in his life. Granite Mountain definitely provided that opportunity.
The sheer physical strength required to succeed as a firefighter is impressive. Physical training included running at least seven miles with a forty-five-pound backpack, followed by an hour of push-ups and other calisthenics in the searing heat of Arizona. This type of training is vital, considering the necessity to be able to fight a fire for shifts that can exceed sixteen hours and last for many consecutive days. This work is generally done miles from a hospital or paramedic, so it is important to be able to handle many dangerous scenarios.
Physical strength is not the only requirement to being a hotshot. Over time, they learn the nature of fires and develop a sense of where they need to be in relation to the fire. They must not only be trained to use all of the equipment, but make repairs if something breaks. Scientific knowledge is also required, such as being able to properly use a weather kit to collect data pertinent to their exact location.
Despite all of the rigorous training, conditions can arise that are completely unpredictable. Such was the case on June 30, 2013, when the Yarnell Hill blaze made an unprecedented change. Years of training and experience could not save the nineteen men who lost their lives that day.
If readers learn only one fact from this excellent book, it should be that improvements and additional resources are needed to ensure the safety of wildland firefighters. McDonough offers suggestions based on his three seasons as a hotshot. After reading My Lost Brothers, I have enormous respect for the men and women doing this work. It is frightening to think where we would be without the protection they provide. It seems only fitting to consider ways to make their jobs safer and better.
Brendan McDonough • Stephan Talty, Contributor