Widow of Granite Mountain Hotshot crew leader talks wildfire safety
May 2, 2018
"Colorado is set to burn. Your fire responders are very worried about catastrophic wildfires this season. It is not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."
Amanda Marsh did not equivocate about wildfire danger when she gave a talk at Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge on Tuesday as part of the Summit County library's "Summit Reads" series." That's because Marsh is a fire widow.
Amanda was married to Eric Marsh, leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that battled the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona in 2013. The fire overtook the Granite crew, resulting in the deaths of 19 of its 20 members, including Eric. It was the worst loss of life among wildland firefighters since 1933.
The tragic story of the Granite hotshot crew was the basis of the recent blockbuster film, "Only the Brave." Eric was portrayed by lead star Josh Brolin while Amanda was portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. It's a story that Marsh tells across the country, with greater urgency when speaking to communities threatened by wildfire, like Summit.
"Since the 1940s, the trend has moved toward Americans wanting to live inside beautiful landscapes. It makes total sense."
But Marsh said that wanting to be near nature also puts all the risks of nature closer to home.
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"We had a very warm, very dry winter. These kinds of dry conditions create perfect environments for bark beetles to ravage pine forests, creating more weak and dead trees to burn, causing fires to burn hotter. Hot, fast, all–consuming fires are becoming the norm."
WHAT WE LOSE IN THE FIRES
Marsh uses stark detail when talking about what happened to her husband.
"I could paint a prettier picture for you," she continued, "but that would do no one any good. I have what I call widow brain anyway. I don't live or communicate in pretty pictures anymore."
The memories burned into Marsh's brain include having to retrieve her husband's dental records to identify his body after it was charred unrecognizable, as well as opening a box of his remains that smelled of smoke and contained tiny, crumbling pieces of the person he once was.
"His body endured over 2,000-degree temperatures," she said. "The body I knew so well — the freckles, his mustache, his grey eyes, his grin, his salt-and-pepper hair. His tattoos. I paint this picture so you can begin to truly feel that my loss is multi-dimensional. Human. Not words on a paper, not photos in a newspaper. Achingly real. Terribly real."
The humanity of firefighters was at the core of Marsh's message to Summit.
"These men and women are not just resources. They are human beings. They are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. They choose to do this job because they love it. It takes a whole other kind of person to put themselves in such dynamic work environments. It takes a hardcore work ethic, and a passion for fighting wildfire."
DON'T BE PART OF THE PROBLEM
Marsh's mission in Summit was to urge residents to take responsibility as members of a mountain community deeply nestled in forestland – a Wildland-Urban Interface.
"You absolutely live at the heart of the WUI. I ask you, are you prepared? Living inside the WUI creates risk for property owners and pets, but also puts firefighters at risk. You have a massive responsibility if you live in the WUI. You have a responsibility to keep my friends safe while they work in your community."
Marsh said the responsibilities communities like Summit have include supporting fire mitigation measures.
"Take early measures to create defensible space around your home. Create an evacuation plan for yourself and your animals. Don't wait until the last minute."
Marsh added that when homeowners refuse or ignore calls to help with fire mitigation, they're essentially saying they don't see value in a firefighter's life.
"When people don't create defensible space around the homes, I feel they view our firefighters as expendable," she said. "When property owners expect firefighters to protect their properties at personal peril, I know they view firefighters as expendable. They view their personal items as more valuable than firefighter safety, and that's a skewed and messed up value system.
"When you get an alert about a wildfire in your area, prepare to evacuate. When you're told to evacuate, evacuate. My loss, and losses to all our Granite hotshot families, should serve as a lesson to humans living in the WUI. Allow humans to be human, don't allow them to be expandable. The cost is too high."
HELP PROTECT OUR BRAVEST
Marsh added that communities like Summit can also help by becoming a "Firewise community," which commits to taking sustained action to improve their own safety. She also urged that the community takes care of its firefighters by donating to foundations and nonprofits like the one she started in honor of her fallen husband, the Eric Marsh Foundation for Wildland Firefighters.
"Wildland firefighters are incredibly undersupported," she said. "We raise money and awareness for wildland firefighters. We contact next to kin when a firefighter is killed in the line of duty. We get financial assistance for firefighters injured on the fire line, and we help with PTSD."
Marsh went on to say that she knew the community implicitly supported their firefighters and that she appreciated that. However, the community's support also needed to be explicit and tangible.
"It would be simply impossible for any of you to fully understand what it means to lose a firefighter in the line of duty," she said. "At best you can be empathetic and care deeply. I need that care, all survivors do. But we also need to know you are doing everything you can do to create defensible space so you don't put firefighters at undue risk. We need your care and your love to turn into action."
To demonstrate what a lack of action took from her and many other fire widows, Marsh put on an interactive exercise with members of the audience. She split up the audience into groups of 19 and three – the number of Granite crew members who died and the survivors they left behind.
She asked each and every member of the larger group the same question: "Are you expendable?" Invariably, the answer came back, "No." And that came right back to the core of Amanda Marsh's message at the top of the hour.
"You value your lives, right? Well, your lives are just as valuable as the firefighters. Cut your trees, maintain your yards, help them stay alive."
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