This story below was just recently published at the Big Round Table, a worthy site for new works. "Burn" goes up here in partial tribute to those 19 Hot Shot Crew members lost by Prescott in the Yarnell Hill fire not long ago - as well as all the brothers and sisters who risk their lives fighting fires and disaster still, wading through the violence and grief of some of the worst moments of our lives. Wherever you lay your head at night, and whatever color you wear under your suit, thank you and blessings to you all. You should all be honored for your service. Here is the only remembrance the DOC has on their website...
What follows is just a few excerpts of BURN - hit the Big Roundtable for the whole thing. This blogger here also has some interesting remarks about the writing of the story, from the author herself.
Thanks for remembering these deaths in custody, Jaime, and for helping their survivors tell their stories...
The Big Roundtable
Seventeen inmates from Perryville’s minimum-security San Pedro unit served on the fire crew. The men ranged in age from 22 to 39. Among them were Joseph Chacon, 25, and Curtis Springfield, 24, who had both been convicted of aggravated assault; Geoff Hatch, 27, who had been in prison since 1984, charged with theft and burglary; and James Ellis, who was 34 and serving a 20-year sentence for manslaughter. Their bosses were correctional officers Larry Terra, 30, and Sandra Bachman, 43. A third crew boss, Dave LaTour, would later arrive separately.
The inmates and staff were certified Type II wildland firefighters. Type II crews have less experience than Type I Interagency Hotshot crews, which are made up of career and part-time firefighters who live and work together throughout the fire season. The Perryville crew was trained according to standards established by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, no differently than the civilian crews that battled forest fires throughout the West. But civilian Type II firefighters at the time earned between $7 and $8 an hour and, with overtime included, could make enough money in six months to spend the rest of the year on the beach, as some of the younger ones did.
In contrast, Perryville crew members earned between 40 and 50 cents an hour. The pay didn’t matter to them. Neither did the inherent risks of the job. Wildland firefighting is brutal, sometimes dangerous, work. Heart attacks and burnover—in which fire overcomes a crew, forcing them to take cover in portable fire shelters until the flames pass—are among the most common causes of death, the former brought on by extreme physical exertion. But the inmates weren’t focused on that. They considered it a privilege to fight fire, and a spot on the crew was coveted. Good behavior inside the prison had earned them the opportunity to get past the razor wire and the gates and the floodlights that loomed above the Perryville complex, way out there in the middle of the Sonoran Desert northwest of Phoenix.
For sure, the job beat doing other people’s laundry or slapping together bologna sandwiches in an institutional kitchen. Plus, it offered the chance to spend weeks at a time camped out in sleeping bags under the stars, with steak and pork chops for supper at the campsite. But there was something else that made the work special, as good for the soul as it was for the stomach: In prison, the men had to wear all orange, all the time. Yet dressed in the firefighting uniform—yellow flame-resistant Nomex jackets, olive green pants, lace-up leather boots, and hard hats—no one could tell that the men were prisoners. And to the people whose homes or land or lives the men saved, they weren’t felons. They were firefighters. Heroes. They commanded respect...
...“Get out!” yelled firefighter Edison Notah, of the Navajo crew.
Positioned just south of Perryville, Notah was able to see through the tree canopy. The fire was blowing up. A column of superheated clouds mixed with smoke and burning debris towered above the forest. The column was later estimated to be 40,000 feet tall and six miles wide. It collapsed when colder air suddenly burst downward, pushing the fire through the dry, dense undergrowth that choked the forest floor. Arizona was in its third year of drought, so the fuels were bone-dry. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds moved the fire over and down the ridge from the west to the east side of Walk Moore Canyon. The Perryville crew was directly in its path...
....The Navajo crew made it out. But when the fire jumped the line meant to keep it at bay, the Perryville crew was separated into two groups. Nine crew members made it to Control Road, where they climbed onto the back of a pickup truck that was waiting to get them out. The rest of them were trapped.
Eleven crew members—10 men and Bachman—turned around and ran back up the canyon, about three-tenths of a mile, away from Control Road, and deeper into the forest. A black, rolling fireball of dense smoke and superheated air barreled downhill. It looked like a monster, or a demon, some thought, and was unlike anything they’d ever seen. The fire was otherworldly. Its size and sound were terrifying. A 100-foot wall of flame rose behind the crew. It roared like a steam engine. There was nowhere to escape.
LaTour ordered the crew to deploy their fire shelters. Made of aluminum foil bonded to fiberglass cloth, these individual-size tarps are designed to both reflect and absorb high heat. Breathable air is trapped inside. The crew members had no choice but to lie beneath the shelters facedown on the forest floor. They’d been trained to slip their arms and legs into straps sewn into the corners of the tarps to hold them securely against the ground. They knew to position their feet toward the fire. They would let the flames roll over the shelters, then wait there until it was safe to come out.
Donald Love, 30, deployed his shelter first, near the dozer line. To the left of Love was Curtis Springfield. Below Love and to his right was William Davenport. One of the youngest men on the crew, Springfield also had the shortest sentence, seven and a half years on a conviction for aggravated assault, which he began serving in 1986, just two months shy of his 20th birthday.
James Denney and Bachman kept running. As they ran, Denney helped Bachman pull her shelter from her pack. It was hard to get to with leather gloves on. Denney then got into his shelter alongside Davenport and LaTour. Bachman was on the ground and in her shelter soon after, next to James Ellis, Geoff Hatch, and Alex Contreras.
About 60 feet downhill from the group, Joseph Chacon lay underneath his shelter. Greg Hoke waited out the firestorm in his shelter, 400 feet from Chacon. He’d made it the closest to Control Road. The wind was so fierce his shelter flipped over.
“We’re going to make it,” LaTour told the crew members near him. “Stay calm. Stay in your shelters. Stay on the ground.” He reminded them to keep talking to one another. “We’re Perryville. We’re tough. We’re gonna make this. We’re gonna be okay,” he heard those close to him say. During a deployment, talking is supposed to ease anxiety. But it was hard for crew members to hear one another as the fire ripped through the canyon. The flame front came in three waves, each just a few minutes apart. From inside the shelters, bright orange flames were visible through pinholes in the seams. When hot wind from one of the flame fronts lifted LaTour’s shelter, smoke and debris rushed in, and he was burned.
LaTour soon heard screams mixed with the sound of rushing wind and flame. The fire was so fast and conditions so extreme that some of the crew members weren’t secure inside the tents. When they had first spotted the fire, it was 75 feet away, at best, and that gave them just one minute to get inside their shelters before being overcome by the flames.
A hot, flaming branch fell onto Davenport’s shelter and burned his legs. Denney abandoned his shelter and ran toward Chacon, near the dozer line. Chacon pulled Denney into his shelter and tried to protect him by lying on top of him. Both were later found dead.
Ellis left his shelter. He walked to the creek bed, near Hoke, who was still tucked safely inside his tent. “I’m hurt bad,” Ellis said. “My shelter didn’t work.”
Meanwhile, Springfield’s lungs burned from inhaling hot gases and smoke. He, too, got out of his shelter. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said. He stumbled toward Love’s shelter then back to the dozer line, which is where he died..."