Life-or-death lessons: Hotshots were vital to Wildfire Academy

Life-or-death lessons: Hotshots were vital to Wildfire Academy

07 March 2014

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USA — The 12th annual Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy will instruct a near-record 708 students from 29 states and Australia on March 8-14, but some of its biggest supporters will be missing.

Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew members would have been over at the academy’s office housed in one of Prescott’s fire stations about now, offering to help move equipment to the academy at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University during the school’s spring break.

“They were our crew,” said Don Howard, who founded the academy and was its incident commander for years. “When we needed tables and boxes and sign boards and chairs moved, we could call them any time and they were there to help.

“They were very special to us.”

Nineteen of the 20 Hotshots perished in the Yarnell Hill wildfire about 30 miles south of Prescott on June 30, and the City of Prescott has not decided whether to rebuild the crew or not. The lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, has moved to Idaho.

After talking about the idea of a statewide wildland firefighting academy for a few years, Howard was determined to make it a reality when the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire struck in 2002 and became the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history.

Organizers chose Kori Kirkpatrick as the academy’s first coordinator. Working on a shoestring budget, she conducted business at home with the frequent help of her husband Eric Marsh. He had landed a job on the Prescott Fire Department’s new fuels mitigation crew and would go on to help create the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew as its first and only superintendent.

“Eric’s passion and contribution to the academy was huge, just huge,” Kirkpatrick said. He also taught the basic wildland firefighting class for several years and later taught advanced courses.

“It was all about teaching them how to do it right, how to do it safely and come home at night,” Kirkpatrick added. She left the academy coordinator position after five years, about the same time she and Marsh divorced. Tony Sciacca took over the coordinator position.

Toward the end of her tenure, Clayton Whitted joined the Granite Mountain crew and often helped her in the office, too.

Whitted and other Hotshot crew members including Jesse Steed and Travis Carter also taught academy classes.

“Most of them gave up this week to be part of the academy,” Sciacca said, volunteering their time like so many other staff members.

Whitted even organized and taught an advanced sawyer class.

“He was looking out for his fellow firefighters, to give them more experience,” Sciacca said.

Wildfire Academy Assistant Coordinator Libby Reiman recalls how Whitted showed up with a raw beef roast, tennis shoe and boot one day so he could demonstrate the dangers of shoddy saw work on parts of the body.

The Hotshots loved to joke around and Marsh was known to demonstrate how to conserve toilet paper in the backwoods by using only one sheet at a time, Howard added.

“It was right on the money, and he’d do it with a straight face,” recalled Howard, who knew Marsh since they worked on Texas wildfires together in 1998.

“They were our crew, but the academy was their academy,” Howard added. “It was in their backyard. They had a lot of fulfillment in supporting this academy.”

New flag honors Hotshots

As it does every year, the academy will honor the 2013 fallen wildland firefighters at the start of its annual banquet next week, including the 19 Hotshots and 17 others. It’s the worst annual wildland firefighter death toll since 1933.

The academy will raise its new flag with its new logo, which honors the Granite Mountain Hotshots by including their Latin motto “Esse Quam Videri” (To be, rather than to seem). Twenty stars represent the 19 fallen heroes and the State of Arizona. At the bottom is the academy’s motto, “Always Remember.” This year’s academy t-shirts also will feature the logo.

The academy isn’t planning any other specific activities related to the fallen Hotshots, although they are likely to come up during morning briefings and class discussions.

“The most honorable thing we can do at the Arizona Wildfire Academy is to try to remember the lessons of the past and learn from them,” Sciacca said.

It’s even more likely that the Hotshots will be discussed outside of the classrooms, and maybe that will help in the healing process.

“There’s going to be people at this academy who are still healing,” Sciacca said. “All of us

in the command team are going to pay more attention to how everybody’s doing.”

The academy will continue, just as the Hotshots would have wanted, Sciacca said.

“These men promoted learning outside the classroom, developing others as leaders, and being stewards of public lands,” Academy Incident Commander Pete Gordon said.

“We’re going to push on, and a huge part is on their behalf,” Howard added. “They want us living our lives and being the very best we can be.”

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