In the summer of 1966, I was 18 years old, a recent high school graduate, and had just been hired by the U.S Forest Service to work as a fire fighter for the summer. I knew next to nothing about fighting fires, but all the job required was that I be able to hike miles up into the mountains and then build a fire line by cutting, chopping, and digging up trees, shrubs, and grass for hours on end—that I could do.
On my first day, I drove the nearly 60 miles from Prescott, Arizona (my home town) to Crown King—a summer home area in the mountains south of Prescott and north of Phoenix. After driving for miles on the wash-board, gravel road that provided the only access to the area, I drove into the small compound that consisted of a Forest Office, District Ranger’s House, a house trailer for the permanent ranger, and a set of bays that housed the equipment, horses, and bunk beds and metal lockers for the fire crew. For the next two summers, my alarm clock each morning would be the whining of the horses stabled in the adjoining bay as they demanded their breakfast.
My fire crew consisted of a slim, uniformed (always with a pressed shirt and tie) District Ranger, a grizzled, well-seasoned, Forest Service lifer, two guys in their late 20s who could only be described as rock-hard mountain folk, a college student, another 18-year old (just-out-of-high-school like me), and me.
I ended up fitting in well because the tough old-timer and the mountain men instantly hated the other half of the crew. This included the District Ranger who they mocked because they thought he was a bit of a dandy and, in two years, only ever went on one fire where he immediately got lost. They also blamed him for cutting their fire pay by always insisting that they come off fires as soon as possible. They also naturally disliked the smartass, rich, college guy with the fancy, brand new, Jeep Wagoneer who had the audacity to be studying to be a Forest Manager someday.
Me and the other know-nothing they liked because we did whatever they told us to do. It was also obvious we thought fighting fires was great sport. Most of all, we fit their idea that a everyone should be a gun-loving, beer-drinking (if you think that 18 was too young to drink, you are right, but that is a another story), pickup-driving, up-for-anything pair of dumbasses.
Our training consisted exactly of one day of learning what we needed to carry in our backpacks, how to sharpen an axe and chainsaw, and two minutes of safety messages. The messages were basically, always be aware of what the fire is doing and never get uphill or upwind of a fast-burning fire. We were also issued a new first for the Forest Service, a brand new piece of equipment—a small, one-person tent made of aluminum foil and fiberglass to be used to cover yourself (and, hopefully, save your life) if a fire ran over the top of you.
After training, the two mountain guys told us to forget everything the District Ranger told us. They said, “Throw out everything in your pack and replace it with something to drink.” So out went the wool blanket, most of the first aid kit, the shovel, and any thing else that weighed more than an ounce (they tossed the aluminum shelter, but I kept mine). We then added small cans of fruit juice and an extra canteen of water to our pack. A Pulaski—a combination of axe and hoe—was kept so we had something that would both chop down trees and brush and also dig trenches and clear the ground of cover. This was the one tool we always carried.
For the rest of the summer, we fought fires. In many places, fire crews spend most of their time waiting for fires to start and never really get much time on the line. At Crown King, the almost daily thunderstorms started fires nearly every day and, for the two seasons I was there, we averaged 60 fires each summer. Most were just a single ponderosa snag burning, but a few of the fires were pretty impressive.
The main thing I learned that summer was that drinking and having a great time were great pastimes, but when we got on a fire, everyone was all business. Getting a fire down and under control as quickly as possible was always everyone’s top priority and, to our credit, we were very good at it.
I finished those two summers and then went to work for the National Park Service where I still fought fires, but my introduction to and desire to work in the outdoors all started with that fire crew at Crown King. All my memories of these experiences came back to me the other day when my wife and I went to the new movie, Only the Brave.
So all this background at the start of my movie review is just to show that these experiences gave me a good background from which to judge this film’s authenticity.
The film is the true story of the 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire that occurred in 2013. The crew was known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and were all members of the City of Prescott Fire Department. As the crow flies, this fire was about 30 miles from the area I worked.
From the first scene (even though the film was mostly shot in New Mexico because of higher costs in Arizona), the movie spurred one memory after the other for me. The makeup of the fire crew, the camaraderie, firefighting techniques, and at the core, a dirty, sweaty job, that apparently had not changed much in the 50 years since I had fought fires.
The best thing about this film for me, was that everything rang true because this film was so very carefully put together, paid attention to the smallest details (everyone wore the same high-topped, lug-soled, “White” boots that firefighters have always worn), and the acting was spot on.
The primary actors, Josh Brolin, Mile Teller, and Jennifer Connelly gave perfect performances that above all were totally believable. Jeff Bridges had a supporting role as the crew manager and (as always) did a great acting job by just being himself.
The scenes of the burning fires, were enough to cause me to shudder at the thought of having at sometime been in similar situations. The walls of spectacular flames where you could almost feel the heat, really gave the audience a sense of what is faced by a wild land firefighter. And at the end of the movie, when the fire roared over the fire fighters who had at the last moment broken out their aluminum tents in an attempt to stay alive, I am sure everyone in the theater was squeezing the arms of their seat as hard as they could.
In all, this was a simple movie without the hype and sensationalism that so many films feel needs to be included. By the end of the film, you felt a genuine compassion for all of these men and it was a fitting tribute to the truly heroic work firefighters do. I highly recommend this film.