Napa Sonoma Fires

2017 Fire Season, A Short and Sweet Review

Fire Season in 2017 was yet another headline-filling wildfires across the US and North America. Data reported by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) for the 2017 calendar year showed 66,131 total fires (+3,277 from 2016) and 9,781,062 (+4,365,941 from 2016) acres burned across the fifty states. In recent blog posts, we highlighted the two major wildfire events, which were the pinnacle of this fire season in terms of destruction and acreage burned. October’s Northern California Wildfires included the Tubbs Fire that burned the most structures (5,000+) in recorded history and the equally significant Thomas Fire (in Ventura/Santa Barbara) that burned the most acres in California history, in December!

2017 Fires

Major Fires from Fire Season 2017 reported by GEOMAC and NIFC

A Look Back at 2017 Fire Danger

Like most years, 2017 saw high fire danger transition across the country, coinciding with regional climate and conditions. High fire danger started in the Midwest and South in March and April, crept into the Southwest in May and June, moved into the Mountainous West and California by July, before finishing with the Southern Appalachians towards the end of the year. The nearly 10 million acres was the second most since NIFC began recording totals across the country. 2017 ranked higher in number of acres burned compared to the 10-year average.

2018 Early Fire Season Outlook

January:

La Niña conditions are likely to continue drying the southern third of the U.S., although occasional storms will bring some helpful moisture. Nonetheless, an elevated threat of large fires along the southern California coast will continue. Dry conditions in the Southwest and southern Plains will worsen but conditions in January are not likely to support much fire activity.

Feb/March:

Drying continues across the southern third of the U.S. Transition to early spring across the southern Plains will bring increasing wind events that could spread fire quickly across the dry grasslands of the southern Plains and the Southwest. The increased potential will spread across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, eastern Colorado, southern Kansas, western Arkansas and Missouri, and southern Arizona by March. Increasing potential for dry, windy fronts in the northern Plains and poor snow cover could contribute to elevated risk of large fires across eastern Montana and western North Dakota in March. Persistent dryness and potential for offshore winds will keep an elevated threat in coastal southern California.

2018 early fire season

An early look at the Fire Danger in the first three months of 2018

Sources: NIFC, GEOMAC, Predictive Services

helo wildfire

It’s Prescribed Fire Season

 

In many wildland areas, smoke can often be seen throughout the winter. More than likely, this is not due to uncontrolled wildfire, but rather prescribed fires that are started when the weather is less conducive to catastrophic burns, allowing firefighters and crews to prepare for when wildfire season picks up again.

 

30230_628921240365_2148150_n.jpgA Rx fire (controlled pile burning) I helped ignite in Golden Hills near Tehachapi, CA

 

Prescribed fire is one of the most effective mitigation concepts for reducing the outbreak and spread of wildfires. SmokeyBear.com defines prescribed fire as the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions that help restore health to fire-adapted environments.  Prescribed fires can sometimes be confused with “backfiring” or “controlled burning” which typically refer to different types of prescribed and controlled fires. In many cases by safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, prescribed burning can help reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on wildlands and surrounding communities.

In the Golden Hills photo above, the piling and burning of excess fuel was intended to make the fire road safer (this technique is sometimes called road brushing) and also to provide a fire break between Hwy 58 (a major thoroughfare) and the densely populated Golden Hills community.

A recent article by UC Berkeley News calls on more prescribed burns to help reduce the risk of large wildfires from the tree death epidemic across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Dead trees in the region have left a huge dead fuel load across the area, and could feed massive fire with dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior when the hot and dry conditions return this summer. Prescribed fires, along with mechanical thinning and removing of trees, help reduce fuel loads enough to limit the risk of wildland fires spreading to nearby communities.

Read our past article about tree mortality to learn more here.

Sources:

Berkeley News

Fox5 Prescribed Burn Article

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2016 and was updated in January 2018

Burn Scar

Debris Flow Devastates Montecito, CA Immediately After The Thomas Fire

While the threat of the Thomas fire just recently diminished in Ventura and Santa Barbra Counties, residents were weary to hear that they are now being threatened by mudslides originating from within the burn area. Rain started Monday afternoon in the areas of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, with the peak rainfall being around 2:30 AM Tuesday morning. The rain came down in amounts up to an inch per hour over the burned area, which the incident commander reported as being a critical factor in the amount of sediment and debris being carried by this amount of water. The devastating debris flow ranged from Cold Springs Canyon to Toro Canyon, and wreaked havoc all the way down to Highway 101. The debris flow was so strong in some locations that it pushed homes off of their foundations and carried them several hundred feet.

First responders have been preparing for this incident since Monday morning by preemptively staging resources in the areas that were forecasted to be impacted the most severely. This strategic placement of resources was followed by officials releasing evacuation zones. The warning stated that all residents within mandatory evacuation zones should leave by 12 noon on Monday in preparation for the heavy rains that were forecasted for the area. Since the early morning hours of Tuesday, first responders have been in a search and rescue mode: still actively engaged in performing helicopter and contact rescues. The threat from this debris flow still remains and first responders are warning residents to stay away from the area if at all possible.

Debris flow

An explanation of a debris flow, and its power.

 

Over the last couple weeks of the Thomas Fire the Federal Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team has been evaluating the blaze’s impact to the fire area and watersheds by predicting debris flow hazards should rains like this impact the area. The orange, red, and dark red areas were determined to have the highest probability of debris flow during a heavy rain event. The BAER team is currently embedded with the Santa Barbara and Ventura Office of Emergency Services to assist them in implementing response plans for communities downstream of the fire.

BAER Debris Flow

The map above displays estimates of the likelihood of debris flow (in %), potential volume of debris flow, and combined relative debris flow hazard.

Santa Barbara/Ventura Flooding at a Glance

  • 17 confirmed deaths related to the storms (These numbers are subject to change as the incident continues)
  • 13 missing people
  • At least 25 injured
  • 50 rescues via helicopter hoists have been performed during today’s search and rescue operations.
  • 1-6.5 inches of rainfall over the Thomas Fire area.
  • Search and rescue efforts still remain priority with approximately 75 percent of the primary search completed in the debris flow area.

If you liked the material in this blog, you can read similar material RedZone has covered here.

Sources

http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/09/us/southern-california-evacuations-rain-flooding/index.html

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-rainfall-mudflow-20180109-story.html

http://santabarbara.onerain.com/map/?sensor_class=10|2880&view_id=5&view=8bc6e88f-eeab-4281-9d92-3d723016e945

https://landslides.usgs.gov/hazards/postfire_debrisflow/detail.php?objectid=178

SmokeJumper Fire

Smokejumpers: Flying into the Danger Zone

Introduction

In the Wildland Firefighting community Smokejumpers are widely regarded as one of the most prestigious positions in the fire service. Smokejumpers are transported to fires in fixed wing aircraft, where they jump out at altitude and parachute down to the fire area. This seemingly wild process reduces response time to remote areas of the forest, and has allowed firefighters to access and attack fires long before heavy equipment could arrive. These seasoned firefighters utilize their vast fire knowledge, coupled with hand tools and chainsaws, to build a fire break around these newly sparked isolated incidents. Smokejumpers have a long history of fighting fire in some of the most secluded forested areas of the United States.

SmokeJumper Landing

Smokejumper landing in a very open, and safe landing zone.

History of the Smokejumpers

Beginning in 1917, the United States Forest Service has been utilizing aircraft as a tool for fighting wildland fires. The first experiments in aviation consisted of dropping containers filled with water onto established wildfires in the hopes of achieving extinguishment. Some of the containers tested in these initial drops consisted of, 5 gallon tin cans, paper bags, and 8 gallon oak beer kegs, all of which proved to be failures. In 1934, T.V Pearson proposed using the relatively new technology of parachutes as a means of transportation for firefighters to be dropped near inaccessible wildland fires. This idea was quickly rejected by the government after a few demonstration jumps. In 1939 attention returned again to T.V. Pearson’s idea of parachuting into a fire. During this year 60 jumps were made into rough terrain simulating what it would be like to parachute into a fire area. In 1940, a crew of 6 Smokejumpers was put together in Winthrop, Washington, and another crew of 6 was staffed flying out of Moose Creek, Idaho. These newly appointed Smokejumpers jumped 9 fires during this first season. The results were finally a success with these crews reaching an early containment on these incidents, saving an estimated 30,000 dollars in suppression costs and property damage. This estimation was triple the cost of the initial investment on the Smokejumping program. Since the success of the first season of the program, Smokejumpers have only become more refined and efficient in their tactics and strategies.

SmokeJumper

Smokejumper leaving the plane with parachute ready to deploy.

Uses and Tactics of the Smokejumpers

                             Today this aerial fire suppression force typically jumps with anywhere from 8 to 16 personnel to an incident. The aircraft is loaded with supplies for the Smokejumpers that are designed for these firefighters to be self-sufficient for anywhere from 48 to 72 hours. The aircraft is also staffed with a spotter, which is typically one or two individuals with extensive smoke jumping experience that plays a support role for the firefighters on the ground. The spotter remains in the aircraft after the Smokejumpers make the initial jump to the fire. The spotter then relays critical information about fire activity, weather conditions, and other pertinent information that the Smokejumpers rely on to do their job safely. Once the firefighters are on the ground, they form and carryout the same duties and roles as a hand crew. They use hand tools and chainsaws to remove fuel, such as vegetation and other combustible material, from the fire’s path.

The Smokejumping program has proven to be one of the most influential and impacting projects related to fighting fires in the wildland. By opening up access to some of the most distant fires in the earliest stages, these potentially devastating disasters have a better chance to be suppressed before they cause any damage to lives or property. As time goes on, Smokejumpers tactics, strategies, and equipment will continue to become more refined and efficient. The combination of some of the best fixed wing and rotary aircraft paired with an elite fire fighting crew remains the most cost effective way to combat fires in desolate areas.

Sources:

https://www.fs.fed.us/fire/aviation/av_library/sj_guide/02_history_of_smokejumping.pdf

https://www.fs.fed.us/blogs/smokejumpers-out-sky-and-fire

https://afs.ak.blm.gov/fireops/fire-operations/smokejumpers-training.php

https://www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/smokejumpers/national-sj-users-guide.pdf

 

Thomas Fire Set to Become Largest in CA History

UPDATE 01/03/18 @ 4:49 p.m. – The fire is now 92% contained at 281,893 acres.

Thomas Fire Summary

The Thomas Fire began in Ventura County just north of Santa Paula around 630pm on Monday December 4th. Under Red Flag and Santa Ana Conditions the fire quickly made a push along Hwy 150 to the south and parallel to Hwy126 to the west threatening Santa Paula and Ventura the first night. The fire continued its push west, crossing Hwy 33 and reaching the ocean at Hwy 101 shortly after. Over the course of the next week the fire slowly boxed in Ojai, eventually surrounding it, and pushed its way further west towards the Santa Barbara County line. By this time, the majority of the 1,330 structures impacted already had been. A few days later, the fire used a new round of overnight wind gusts to make a big run on the morning of Sunday Dec 9th, establishing itself above Carpinteria and Montecito. The following Saturday another round of morning winds forced the fire down into the fringe of Montecito, forcing a wall of engines into a several hour battle to push stall its progress. Luckily, by this time over 8,000 firefighters were assigned to the fire, and up to the task of suppression the big morning run. Thanks to their efforts, of the reported 1,300 homes threatened on Dec 16th, only 15 or so were impacted.

thomas progression

Thomas Fire’s progression from Dec 4th (green) through Dec 22nd (red)

Since that push, the fire’s progress has stalled and containment has increased to 65%. Still over the last 17 days, the fire is only 500 acres shy of topping the Cedar Fire for largest in California history. A burn operation is expected to add the acres needed with a few thousand more before all is said and done. Luckily, the firefighters necessary to see the fire out have been halved since the peak last week, but the suppression costs could eclipse last summer’s costly Soberanes fire in well short of the time. The full containment of the historic fire is not expected until after 2018 has begun.

Thomas Fire Major Developments:

  • Yesterday’s wind event produced 50 mph gusts, but fire activity remained minimal.
  • The firing operation was stalled yesterday due to high humidity and some snowfall. It was able to continue in the afternoon, and further firing is planned today for the Rose Valley area.
  • The fire area effectively endured two straight weeks of high to extreme fire weather conditions. Over that period, RH dropped as low as 3-5% and wind speeds were recorded over 60mph.
  • The fire is 500+ acres shy of passing 2003’s Cedar Fire for largest (in terms of acreage burned) in recorded California history.
  • Total fire suppression costs have ballooned to $170 million in just 17 days. It took last year’s Soberanes Fire twelve weeks to cost its total of $236 million.
top ten acres burned

Thomas Fire is 2nd all time in California’s history for acreage burned, but not for long.

Thomas Fire Facts:

  • Location: Fillmore all the way to Santa Barbara, both Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties
  • Size: 272,800 acres (as of 1/3/18 – 281,893)
  • Containment: 65% (as of 1/3/18 – 92%)
  • Fire Behavior: Light fire behavior with interior burning on the northern portions of the fire
  • 1,063 structures have been destroyed and 267 more have been damaged.
  • 18,000 Structures remain threatened.
  • All Mandatory Evacuations have been lifted.
top four ca fires

California’s four largest fires in history (update 01/03/18 : Thomas is now number 1)

Sources:

NIFC.GOV

CalFire Incident Page

Inciweb

Wikipedia – List of California Wildfires

Santa Ana Conditions This Week for Southern California

Red Flag Warning Possible through Saturday

The National Weather Service has issued a Red Flag Warning for Southern California beginning in the early AM hours on Monday through (at least) Friday 1200 PDT. The areas will experience a significant Santa Ana conditions with the strongest winds expected Monday night and Thursday night into Friday. Offshore winds will exacerbate the problem by drying the air and reducing humidity to the single digits. This will likely be the strongest and longest Santa Ana event we have seen in the 2017 season.

Around this time two years ago we discussed what the thresholds are for a Red Flag Warning in Southern California. In this case, the National Weather Service sees the region’s relative humidity ≤15%, with sustained winds ≥ 25 mph and/or frequent gusts ≥ 35 mph (duration of 6 hours or more). The early event projections have even stated this could extend into next weekend. Specifically, wildfire danger will be most critical in the mountains and valleys of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The combination of Santa Ana winds, low humidity, warm temperatures, and dry fuels will increase the risk for the rapid spread of any new fire starts. In response for this week, extra strike teams, and brush engines have been strategically staged in case of a big wildfire ignition.

RFW stats

This week’s expected Red Flag Warning statistics

Areas Impacted by Santa Ana Conditions:

Ventura County Mountains, Orange County, Los Padres National Forest, Los Angeles County Mountains, Angeles National Forest, Santa Clarita Valley, Cleveland National Forest, and San Diego County.

Click for official Santa Ana Conditions information: Red Flag Warning

santa ana conditions Dec 4

This week’s Red Flag Warning covers Southern CA from Santa Barbara to the border

 

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Book Review: “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”

In The Big Burn, author Timothy Egan takes the reader through the beginning years of environmentalist and activist John Muir’s growing friendship with then Governor Teddy Roosevelt. The book builds by highlighting their growing, shared desire to preserve the frontier and forestlands of the West. During Roosevelt’s presidency, he leaned heavily on forester and politician Gifford Pinchot to manage and develop the nationally protected forestry lands. Pinchot, in turn, formed the US Forest Service, as we know it today. Egan provides in-depth historical accounts of the politics involved in the establishment of the protected areas and the fight against unregulated land clearing by logging companies.

 

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

As the story leads in to 1910, Egan sets the stage by depicting a newly established forestry service still developing its forestry management plan. Many areas had no trained or allocated firefighting groups. With little-to-no fire crew system in place, Egan tells how forest rangers would have to staff their crews with any able-bodied men in town when the need arose, oftentimes from the nearby saloon. The whole situation becomes harrowing when one day in late August, a wildfire began burning out of control in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. In response, a ranger named Ed Pulaski, was sent with a 45 man crew to work a part of the fire and ended up forced to find shelter in a nearby mine. Pulaski knew the area, was familiar with fire behavior, and was determined to save his men, even giving up his horse to an older fire fighter so the man could keep up with the crew. Pulaski kept his men sheltered in the mining tunnel overnight until the fire passed, keeping some of the panicked men inside the tunnel by force at gunpoint. The next day, he famously led them out of the forest into the nearby town to the hospital. Included in Egan’s relating of the Big Burn, as it came to be called, are many first-hand accounts and photos that pull the reader even closer into the events that occurred in the Coeur d’Alene area. The August 1910 fire across portions of Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned approximately 3 million acres of logging and mining land – nearly the size of Connecticut.

Image of mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight - now called the Pulaski Tunnel

Mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight – now called the Pulaski Tunnel

This book is recommended for readers interested in the historical account of the Big Burn and the inspiration for the development of the US Forestry Service and National Park Service. It is easily readable and engaging while giving an incredibly detailed and laid out history of the events surrounding this fire. Readers familiar with the wildland fire fighting world may know Pulaski’s name from the Pulaski tool credited to him (and likely created after this incident due to the need shown for better firefighting tools) that is a national standard.

For more information:

Social Media Tips for Insurance Agencies During Wildfire Season

If your company isn’t harnessing the power and audience of social media outlets in your disaster plans, you are leaving a huge resource untapped. Today we will be exploring some ways that social media can help insurance agencies stay informed, provide resources and information to customers, improve customer service, and spread the knowledge and professionalism of their brand. For more information on how Social Media is used to deliver timely wildfire information, see our past blog: Social Media and Wildfire.

Passive vs. Active Uses

Passive: monitor and follow various feeds of information to remain up to date.

  • Follow reliable Fire and Safety Agencies for the latest information regarding an incident. Federal, State, and Local fire agencies are getting more active on Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, and other social networks. Official accounts often offer the latest official information much faster than news reports.

    Tahoe National Forest tweets a link to details regarding an upcoming prescribed burn.

     

  • Watch livestreams of briefings or news reports from the scene. New livestreaming technology and adoption are bringing unprecedented access to official briefings and meetings in real time. Example: Canyon Fire Briefing from September 28, 2017.

Active: share information to help your followers stay informed.

  • Inform followers of fire and insurance resources. Retweet information about shelters for those displaced by the fire, or make a Facebook post about how to file a claim for damaged property. Being helpful and forthcoming about what the company knows and can offer will build good faith with your customers, especially in a time of need.

    FEMA tweeting resources to help with applying for disaster aid.

  • Share fire information that affects your customers, such as the latest fire activity, evacuations, road closures, etc.

CalFire tweeting the final acreage and containment figures to the Nuns Fire with a link to the incident page.

 

  • Use official media from ready.gov and weather.gov to advise followers of how to prepare their homes and family plan before a wildfire, and what to do when one occurs. These links provide excellent content intended to be shared on social media.

    National Weather Association tweets a link to their wildfire safety preparedness web page.

 

  • Respond directly to customer questions and concerns with credible information.

The official Sonoma County Sheriff twitter updates followers on the latest evacuations.

Bottom Line: Information is Valuable and People Will Appreciate the Help

Wildfires can be confusing, frustrating, emotional, and devastating for individuals and their families. Social media offers insurance agencies multiple tools to help keep themselves and their customers informed. Important information such as evacuations, shelters, and resources is not always easy for people to find. Being proactive about knowing what is going on and sharing that information adds trust with your customers and can help make a devastating event in their life a little easier to handle.

Is Wildfire Modeling Behind the Times?

Wildfires are one of the most difficult natural disasters to model. Some argue wildfire modeling is 20 years behind hurricane modeling — and that’s not necessarily inaccurate. Hurricanes occur frequently, take several days to form and can be monitored via satellite. Hurricanes are also enormous and can be over 50 miles in radius. They are not obstructed by buildings and, while complex, are affected by fewer variables than wildfires.

Now, consider wildfires. A wildfire can start in seconds by a lightning strike or a dropped cigarette. Oftentimes, the source of ignition is concealed. A wildfire can smolder for days before significant smoke is reported and others can become destructive in a matter of minutes. Even a small burn — just a few acres — can destroy homes and other structures. On top of that, wildfires are affected by a myriad of factors from roads to fuel moisture and type to relative humidity. Sometimes, wildfires are so short-lived that these variables are not recorded; other times, a wildfire covers so many ecosystems that each area of the fire is impacted differently.

File:Propagation model wildfire.png

RedZone Improvements to Wildfire Modeling

Neither hurricane modeling nor wildfire modeling is an easy task. However, wildfires present so many distinct challenges that it’s difficult to even compare the two types of events. Fortunately, wildfire modeling has come a long way in recent years and we at RedZone have made it a priority to make wildfire modeling more accurate than ever before.

Take the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, for example. A simplistic wildfire model didn’t account for many of the devastating factors that ultimately destroyed properties. One of these factors was ember showers, which caused homes to burn that were outside of the assumed danger zone. RedZone’s solutions, developed by expert wildfire analysts, take into account these lesser-known variables that can have devastating effects on properties during a wildfire. RedZone wildfire modeling also takes several scenarios into account at the same time. For example, it asks: If the wildfire goes in direction A, how far will it go? If the wildfire goes in direction B, how far will it go? And so on. By taking into account the likelihood and severity of every possible scenario, and every variable that goes with each, we are reaching a new standard for wildfire modeling.

RedZone looks at wildfire modeling from a loss-prevention perspective. Therefore, while a model might be good, if homes are unnecessarily destroyed, the model isn’t good enough. We’re developing wildfire modeling so it’s a standard, scientifically peer-reviewed model, which will prevent the loss of structures, homes and land. This model is mutually beneficial for both homeowners and insurance companies — and insurance companies would likely see an obvious and significant ROI increase from adopting it.

Case Study: Canyon 2 Fire in Anaheim Hills, California. October 9, 2017 – October 17, 2017

The first image shows what the model predicted the fire would do in 24 hours without suppression efforts as a factor. The second image shows the official fire perimeter a full week’s worth of active suppression efforts by both aircraft and hundreds of firefighters. In comparing the model against the final perimeter, you can see that fire suppression efforts were successful in stopping the fire at the eastern ridge line and along Highway 241. The difference is that the model predicted this wildland fuel area to have larger, rapid spread. The model did correctly predict the fire to jump Highway 241 and continue to burn aggressively to the south and west. Having our model results early in this incident could have helped decision makers visualize risk, prioritize response, and aid in evacuations due to the nature of the event.  All in all, the Canyon 2 Fire destroyed 25 homes and burned over 9,000 acres.

Canyon 2 Wildfire Model – first 24 hours of fire progression showing the fire’s extent without suppression

canyon2 final perimeter

Canyon 2 Final Fire Perimeter – shows the fire’s full progression with successful suppression efforts keeping it smaller than it could have been

 


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2017 and was updated in November 2017

New Film Highlights the Unsung Heroes of Wildland Firefighting

only the brave movie poster

© 2017 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved.
Motion Picture © 2017 No Exit Film, LLC. All rights reserved.

2017 has brought devastating wildfires to much of the Western United States. Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington all fared way worse than expected with more than 8 million acres consumed and hundreds of homes lost. California was the hardest hit, experiencing the deadliest and most destructive fires in the state’s history. The fires that tore through Northern California last month engulfed over 245,000 acres, destroyed some 8,000 structures, and caused the loss of life to more than 40 people. Much of country is fortunate to not experience wildfires of this scale and may find this level of devastation hard to comprehend. Fewer still understand the hard fought battle wildland firefighters wage to protect land, life, and structures.

No films in recent memory have told a compelling story of the unsung heroes of wildland firefighting. Short of news stories, audiences likely have little appreciation for the fury of a large wildfires moving like a tidal wave across the landscape. Most of the recent firefighting movies have focused on urban fire stations or have been laughable action films like Firestorm. In the wake of the historic 2017 wildfire season a movie now in theaters finally helps remedy that.

Only the Brave released by Columbia/Sony Pictures recounts the tale of a small group of wildland firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The movie, based on an article in GQ titled No Exit, by Sean Flynn, focuses on the personal struggles of Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), whose personal dramas act as a back drop to the formation of the Granite Mountain hotshots and the fires they battled across the country.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots started as a fuels mitigation crew for the city of Prescott before transitioning to a type 2 hand crew in 2004. After becoming frustrated about the crew’s role on numerous fires, Marsh fought for the team to earn an evaluation to become certified as a Hotshot crew. In 2008, after a lot of hard work and politicking the crew earned the distinction as the first municipal hotshot crew in the nation. Hotshots are small crews of elite wildland firefighters trained to fight fires directly in remote backcountry terrain with shovels, chainsaws, and limited support from other resources. Often working in steep rugged terrain with hot and dry conditions, they dig line, cut down trees and light back fires to help keep contain fires to a planned perimeter.

The first two thirds of the movie unfold around these events showing the arduous training, inherent dangers of firefighting, and the bonds it forms within the crew. Much of the story is told through the perspective of new recruit Brendan McDonough, a recovering drug addict who is given a second chance to build a new life for himself and his new born daughter. McDonough’s training allows the movie to tell a story that is not only engaging but is also informative and instructional.

Numerous scenes in the movie depict the crew digging line, clearing brush, and using drip torches and flares to start fires. Seeing firefighters using fire to fight fire is likely new to audiences inexperienced with wildland fire-fighting techniques. The movie shows how flares and drip torches allow firefighters to burn vegetation ahead of an incoming fire-front in order to establish a fire break that robs the approaching blaze of fuel that it needs to continue spreading. These fires can also be used to help steer the main fire or provide safety zones.

The film seamlessly blends some intense scenes of the crew with amazing special effects to highlight the enormity of wildfires and the challenges faced in trying to contain them. The director Joseph Kosinski avoids the normal pitfalls inherent in the typical macho-posturing movies and instead delivers a poignant story that is both emotional and respectful. Kosinski and the actors deliver a sincere portrayal of their real life counterparts along with their authentic camaraderie. Although there are some obvious Hollywood liberties taken, the film faithfully recreates the facts that matter most. Some of the scenes, like the human pyramid in front of the giant Juniper, were painstakingly recreated to pay homage to the now iconic photo of the crew celebrating the successful saving of the sacred Prescott tree during the Doce Fire.

I was refreshing to see that even as the film builds to its inevitable climax at Yarnell Hill, it stayed true to the story, adhering closely to official reports. For example, much of the dialogue is pulled straight from radio transcripts and the accounts from other firefighters on scene. Kosinki lays out the events of the Yarnell Hill Fire “as is” without attempting to try and invent motivations or answer questions that remain unanswered. The result is powerful and effective.

Only the Brave should give viewers a greater appreciation for the role played and the danger faced by wildland firefighters in the perennial battle to protect lives and land in the American West.

granite mountain fund

The Granite Mountain Fund drives donations to support firefighting as well as the towns and families connected to and impacted by hotshots and their work.