This week, Doug Cupp underwent a grueling physical challenge. For nearly 48 continuous hours, he ran through the rugged, mountainous terrain of Summit County.
But you wouldn’t mistake him for an ordinary trail runner.
He labored under the full weight of wildland firefighting gear; and he carried on his back the heavy emotional weight of tragedy and death.
Cupp started the run at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 28. That was the exact date and time when the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona was first reported one year ago.
The infamous fire, sparked by a lightning strike, transformed into a grievous tragedy two days later when 19 city of Prescott firefighters, who were also members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were killed by the smoke and flames of the raging wildfire.
Cupp, who serves as division chief for Summit Fire Authority, covered more than 120 miles of wildland trails during his two-day run in memory of the Yarnell 19.
“I had a time line of the events and how they went down in Yarnell,” Cupp said. “And doing something so physical, like this run, while focusing and thinking so much about it, it felt like it was happening again.”
Cupp had several reasons for undergoing the run. One was to raise money for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to the families of wildland firefighters killed while on duty. He also did it to honor the memory of the fallen.
“When you put your heart into something, no matter how tough it is, if you’re doing it for the right reason, it makes it not as tough,” Cupp said.
His run also coincided with the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Storm King Mountain Fire. On July 6, 1994, a wildfire, also sparked by a lightning strike, killed 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs.
“I not only raised money for families, but I also used it as an opportunity to raise awareness and give safety tips for dealing with wildfires to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “And I didn’t just want to talk about it. I wanted to do some type of action.”
That’s where the running came into play.
Cupp remembers exactly where he was when the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed.
“I was on shift when a report came out that they were missing,” Cupp said. “For about two hours I was glued to every word. I was following social media and government reports to find out anything I could.”
And in the midst of his sleep-deprived run (he averaged only about three hours of sleep per night) he underwent an almost out-of-body-and-time experience.
Tragedies like Yarnell turn life upside down for first responders. They are the ones who rescue those in distress. It can make it difficult to comprehend when the rescuers become the victims.
“When people call 911 — it’s their worst moment,” Cupp said. “And when you’re responding to things like floods and wildfires, it’s more intense because it’s on a large scale and it affects so many people. The impact of what you’re doing is so much greater during that moment. It’s a moment when you can stand up for your community.”
What attracted Cupp and many others to firefighting — and what attracts so many to other first-responder positions — is having the opportunity to help people during their worst moments. The ability to be a positive force in the midst of mayhem and trauma is a tremendous gift first responders give.
But what happens when the script is reversed and the heroes become the helpless?
This was a question Cupp struggled with during his grueling run through the Summit wilderness.
“Dealing with fatigue and the sleep deprivation made it hard to focus at times,” he said. “It was difficult to understand basic concepts. And I got lost a couple times. It also started to feel like the Yarnell fire was actually happening again. And I knew it was happening and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
But despite feelings of helplessness, so foreign to a first responder, he did find a way to make sense of the tragedy.
“If we learn from these types of mistakes, then they didn’t die in vain,” Cupp said. “When these accidents happen we have to learn from them so we don’t go through them again. It’s important we don’t repeat history.”