Without question they were heroes, the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Like Smokejumpers in the Forest Service, the Hotshots routinely put themselves on the flank of a fire where no one else will go. If you live in the West, you know them as graduate students or mountain bikers — your neighbors who put on a yellow shirt and 40 pounds of gear to save the place you love.
But as to the question, the why of their deaths: every homeowner in the arid lands owes these fallen men an answer. More than ever, wild land firefighters die for people’s summer homes and year-round retreats. They die protecting property, kitchen views, dreams cast in stucco and timber.
And so it was in Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday: the Hotshots were sent to the advance guard of a tricky fire in order to protect a former gold-mining community that had become a haven for retirees. After an evacuation order, most of the homes were empty. They were just fuel at that point.
Sunday’s fatal toll from the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona was the greatest loss of firefighter lives in the United States since Sept. 11. But those who died in New York that terrible day were not rushing into a building in order to protect property — they were trying to save lives.