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In seeking the truest definitions of heroism and bravery we must look immediately to the actions of the 19 men who ran toward a raging wildfire as it devoured the dry Arizona landscape on Sunday — and who will never again return to their families.
These were men as brave as any soldier on a battlefield. As the name implies, this elite squad of “hotshots,” who fight the worst fires that a bolt of lightning and a dry climate can conjure, surely have a bit of the adventurer about them.
But like every firefighter, every cop, every soldier — what matters in the end is that they were individuals driven to extraordinary lengths to preserve the lives and property of their fellow citizens, who understood that every mission might be their last.
The nation today is in deep mourning for these 19 men. The loss is almost unspeakable, and yet even now the colleagues of the crew based in Prescott, Ariz. are rushing to the front lines, summoning superhuman strength to meet their duties, while the rest of us whine about the challenge of a traffic jam.
We are not unaccustomed to the sudden loss of strong, young men, lost in the prime of their lives in the line of their particular duty, whether in the smoke and flames of a warehouse or to the power of the ocean in a fishing boat out at sea.
But the scale of this loss, the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years, is simply staggering.
There are questions that need to be answered; there will and must be an investigation into the mechanics of how an entire company could suffer such a fate, beyond the cruel simplicity of shifting winds. In the same way that past tragedies have led to advances in fighting wildfires, the loss at Yarnell will surely bring similar lessons.
But there will be time for those questions, those lessons, after the mourning is done. For the families and colleagues of those who were lost, of course, that day may never come.