Monday, March 12, 2018

Only the Brave: Movie Commentary

During my career, I had a fair share of exposure to the natural phenomena called wildfires. Though most probably think of New Mexico as a desert state, the truth is it contains millions of acres of forests and at least three major wilderness areas--the Gila (the largest at 3.3 million acres), the Pecos, and the Jemez, and five major designated National Forests. In fact, the original Smokey Bear - the little rescued bear cub with the burned paws who became the national icon for preventing forest fires - hailed from the forests near Lincoln, New Mexico.

In my tenure as a military budget director, I managed the budget for State Active Duty--which was a special fund for the deployment of the National Guard troops and equipment to assist with manmade or natural disasters within our state. I saw a lot of wildfires on my watch, including the Cerro Grande, which in the year 2000 destroyed 48,000 acres, a good portion of the town of Los Alamos and very nearly took out one of our national labs--LANL or Los Alamos National Laboratory. This fire was so massive, it could be clearly seen from space. It started on May 4th with a controlled burn that quickly got out of hand and wasn't completely extinguished until July 20th of that year.

I remember our Regional Training Center being converted into a makeshift dining hall for hundreds of firefighters and emergency personnel sent to assist with the fire and fire security. I also remember watching from the patio area outside our headquarters building when the Cerro Grande fire spiked a ridge not that far to the west of us, and wondered if we would be next to evacuate.

Naturally, when I heard that a group of Hotshots--the elitist of the elite wild land firefighters--had been overtaken on a ridge in Arizona on June 30, 2013, and all 19 succumbed, I was shocked and deeply saddened. I knew it had to have been a horrific fire to get the better of such highly trained personnel.

Little did I know that a remarkable movie would be made of this incident, and much of it would be filmed very near my old office in Santa Fe and near some of the areas where the Cerro Grande fire burned more than a decade before. This powerful tale was captured in the recently released motion picture, Only the Brave. Here's the trailer...

I won't go into the details of the plot, because I want to leave that for readers to discover themselves, but I will tell you the film packed a punch, as have a few of the images I've since seen and the additional facts I've since learned as a result. The title came from the first words of a quotation by the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus: "Only the brave enjoy noble and glorious deaths..."

A quick background on Hotshot crews. At the time of the Yarnell Hill Fire, there were roughly 107 of these specially trained crews, each consisting of 20 members, throughout the US. These men and women are certified, highly trained and must meet stringent physical requirements. You can think of them as the Special Forces of wildland firefighters. They are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can be sent to any area needing assistance, usually to fight major or high priority fires, where they sometimes camp for weeks in the fire area. Unlike many other firefighting outfits, the Hotshots work on the front line fighting fire with fire, igniting burn lines to arrest the spreading wildfire in order to protect people, property, towns, forests and landmarks.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were unique, in that they were the only crew formed from a city municipality (Town of Prescott Arizona Fire Department or PFD). It took six years to attain their certification, beginning with the establishment of a fuels mitigation crew in 2002, which later transitioned to a Type 2 handcrew in 2004, to them finally receiving their evaluation and Hotshots Type 1 certification in 2008, five years before the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Images property of Columbia Pictures
In casting, there was a lot of effort made to find actors who fit not only the physical characteristics of the real life person they were portraying, but the actors then took it to the next level in trying to capture the spirit of the person. Miles Teller (Divergent) plays Brendon "Donut" McDonough, and spent several days with Brendon to get a sense of his mannerisms and habits. The same went for Jeff Bridges and his portrayal of Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink. Josh Brolin worked hard to accurately represent the hard-driving perfectionist, Superintendent Eric Marsh. His widow, Amanda Marsh, showed actress Jennifer Connelly several methods she used in handling rescued horses--and yes she was, and is, a real life horse rescuer, and yes, those methods are shown in the movie.

Maybe one of the most stunning revelations for me was that actor Brandon Bunch played the role of his real life best friend, Garret Zuppiger. The actor had formerly been with the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew for four years and knew every member of the team that was killed that day. In fact, he might have been there himself, if he hadn't left the Hotshots two weeks earlier to tend to his pregnant wife. The tragic call about his friends came on his oldest son's birthday. He turned down the offer for the role more than once before deciding to do the film. Of the private screening, he said: "The whole thing was kind of hard to watch."

One of the most iconic scenes, which in real life took place on June 19, only days before the team met its fate, was the saving of the Grandfather Juniper. This ancient Alligator Juniper, a tree so ancient that "it might have been a seedling when Jesus walked the planet" is one of the state's natural treasures. It grew near the Granite Mountain Hotshots' hometown of Prescott, Arizona, and it resulted in one of the most famous photos of the group ever taken after the crew saved the tree during the Doce Fire. (There's a version of the photo compared to the scene in the movie at the History vs. Hollywood link below.) Prescott College Professor Doug Hulmes said of the Grandfather Juniper, "May the tree continue to stand as a recorder of Nature's memory and a living memorial to those who cared."

Images property of Columbia Pictures
There are a few events in the film that were altered, such as Hollywood merging the characters of the Fire Chief and Deputy Fire Chief into one, and a few things that weren't covered, such as the lawsuit later brought by some of the survivors' families against the Arizona State Department of Forestry. Clearly, this heroic team was lost due to a fatal combination of unpredictable fire and weather conditions, uncharacteristic decisions and inexplicable actions.

The Yarnell Hill Fire resulted in the greatest loss of firefighters in a single event since September 11, 2001.

If you didn't catch this movie in theaters last fall, I highly recommend it. This story needed to be told, and I'm in awe at how well Hollywood pulled it off. (And that's certainly not something I'm known to say often.)

It's possible this production hit so close to home for me because of my background and the history of wildfires in our state, but I believe it would appeal to almost everyone. Many know of the heroism of firefighters in an urban setting, but few understand what it takes to meet Mother Nature head-on in her own territory.

Only the Brave is a definite GO!

Read More:
History vs. Hollywood: Only the Brave 2017
Hiking Where the Granite Mountain Hotshots Fell
Hotshot Tree Earns Magnificent 7 Honors
Former Granite Mountain Hotshot Plays Best Friend...
Line of Fire: What Happened at Yarnell Hill?
A Year After the Yarnell Hill Wildfire
Four Year Later: New Memorial to 19 Firefighters (Video)
Granite Mountain Hotshots Facebook Page

The Official Granite Mountain Hotshots Charity: Prescott FF Charities

And a few final thoughts on the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their legacy...


Movie theme song and lyrics "Hold the Light" by Dierks Bentley

As New Mexico is facing what may become the worst fire season in our history -- following one of the driest, warmest winters on record -- this film brought into very sharp focus what may be in store for our state.

Thank the Lord for the Hotshots and others like them--those who are brave and bold enough to battle these devastating wildfires. They are true heroes.

Have a great week.


  1. Fascinating and deeply moving post. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Greta. It was really a remarkable story about these heroic men and what they did.

  3. By the way, we hope to visit the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial in honor of the five year anniversary of the event, hopefully this coming spring or fall (to avoid the heat of summer). The memorial is built on the trail and the actual site where the 19 fell. There's a very moving video about it above called Remembering the Granite Mountain Hotshots. There'll be some pretty rugged hiking involved so I need to gear up for it!

    Look for a future blog if we get there.

  4. Thanks for a great post, Laurie. I went back and forth on whether to catch this movie. I love this type of film, but I knew the grim ending, so wasn't sure if I really wanted to sit through it. Based on your review, though, I may have to check it out on PPV after all.

  5. Thanks, Donna. It actually helped knowing the outcome so it wasn't such a tragic twist, and also the beautiful, thoughtful way the story wrapped. It gave me some time to process.

    Also wanted to mention that I've never been much of a fan of actor Miles Teller, but I sure am now. He was freaking awesome in his role.


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