'Only the Brave' honors Arizona hotshots killed in 2013 fire

The Yarnell Hill Fire took the lives of 19 wildland firefighters, the greatest loss of American firefighters since 9/11

On June 30, 2013, 19 of Arizona’s wildland firefighters lost their lives when storm winds carried a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona to the area where they were working. 

Three years later, former New York Times Phoenix bureau chief and current professor at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Fernanda Santos published a book about the 19 men and the fire that took their lives.

This year a movie, titled “Only the Brave,” will honor the lives of the 19 men and detail how they worked.

The men who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a wildland firefighting crew.

These men don’t use water to fight wildfires, they go in with shovels and chainsaws and axes and hoes. They dig down to the mineral soil and cut back trees and brushes, setting controlled burns in areas the fire hasn’t hit yet so there is no fuel for the fire.



Santos said wildland firefighters are often seen as the unsung heroes of firefighting, working directly on the line of a wildfire and fighting it with fire.

Santos wrote a story about the fire for the New York Times back in 2013, explaining the differences between different types of firefighters and the work that they do. But, she said she didn’t feel that was enough – she needed to delve deeper into the story to truly honor the men who died doing a thankless job.

“I had all these other questions that I just realized I could not answer just through the reporting for a newspaper story,” Santos said. “It wasn’t going to be a curiosity that was going to be satisfied by just another newspaper story, or even a magazine story.”

So she spent the next three years talking to friends and family of the hotshots, researching wildland firefighting, getting certificates from the Arizona Wildfire Academy, hiking up to the site of the infamous fire and anything else it took to research this story.

James Badge Dale, one of the actors in “Only the Brave,” said Santos’ New York Times story was what inspired him to get involved in the film.

“I was riding the six train downtown (in New York City) and it was the week of the Yarnell fire, and Fernanda Santos, a New York Times journalist, wrote a two-page article on these guys,” Dale said. “Riding that subway car in New York City, something came over me in my veins, and all I could think about was, ‘My god, this story needs to be told, it deserves to be told.’”

Dale said he was thrilled when Joe Kosinski, the director of the film, came to him and asked him to join the cast.

Brendan McDonough was the 20th member of the 2013 Granite Mountain Hotshots team. He was the only one who survived.

On June 30, 2013, he was the lookout for the team, communicating with them as the fire moved, giving them tips on where to go and how to react. He nearly lost his life when the fire began rushing toward him, but he was able to narrowly escape back to safety, where he heard his crew’s last words over the radio.

He said it was an honor to be a part of “Only the Brave.”

“There’s no greater honor for us than to be able to see our brothers on the big screen and for people to be able to learn about them,” he said. “I think everyone’s gonna be able to take something away from this film and say ‘Hey maybe I could emulate this,’ and that’s how people can carry on their legacy.”

McDonough said everyone involved in the film was focused on accuracy, making sure every detail was as close to perfect as possible, which helped capture the true essence of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

“I think they did an amazing job of capturing what it’s like to be on a hotshot crew and what that brotherhood and camaraderie is really like,” he said.

Pat McCarty, who was a Granite Mountain Hotshot for a few years before the Yarnell fire, worked with McDonough as technical advisor on the film.

“We’re in such a unique situation here with the fact that we have a great opportunity to tell the world about these men,” McCarty said. “And not only them, but the men and women who do this job every day.”

McCarty said he and McDonough helped with many aspects of the film – they helped the actors grasp the personalities of the men they were playing, they helped train the actors in a two-week-long hotshot boot camp, and they helped ensure the firefighting scenes in the film were accurate.

"Joe (Kosinski) would say, 'Hey man, this is what I want ... how do we make this look as authentic as possible?'" McCarty said. "Every action sequence was as authentic as possible, whether it was real fire, smoke, or the way the guys walk, talk and work."

He said the actors were trained well, and they used real fire, real tools and real 45 to 60 pound packs.

Kosinski said authenticity was his number one priority – he wanted to make it a movie wildland firefighters could appreciate and say was done right.

He said he took a lot of the inspiration he needed to represent the hotshot brotherhood from photos and videos that Chris MacKenzie, one of the hotshots, often took on his phone while they were working.

"Having access to the guys' personal photos was just a tremendous resource to trying to recreate that, what life was like on the crew," he said.

Kosinski compared the story to a war and said he was amazed at how few films he could find that depicted the job of a wildland firefighter.

"In a sense, it kind of is a war movie, but it's a war against Mother Nature," Kosinski said. "There are no politics. There are no weapons."

"Only the Brave" will open in theaters on Oct. 20.


Reach the reporter at aegeland@asu.edu or follow @alexis_egeland on Twitter. 

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