The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting by Fernanda Santos

A journalist’s in-depth accounting of the tragic loss of 19 firefighters in an Arizona fire in 2013 gives equal due to detail and emotion.

fire line

On June 30, 2013, 19 firefighters died while fighting an Arizona blaze named the Yarnell Hill Fire. Fernanda Santos, Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times, explores those 19 lives and the period surrounding their deaths in The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and One of the Deadliest Days in American Firefighting. She relates this affecting story with respect, momentum and surprising suspense, considering the outcome is known from the beginning.

Santos’s style is traditionally reportorial and, after a brief prologue, chronological. Unlike the expansive, philosophical approach Norman Maclean takes in his acclaimed Young Men and Fire, about a 1949 firefighting disaster in Montana, The Fire Line is straightforwardly written. Despite her apparent closeness to the surviving families and her immersion in her research–among other exercises, she undergoes some wilderness firefighter training–Santos sticks to a journalistic narrative and does not place herself in the story. She describes the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their work: physically hard, underpaid, dirty, but also hard-won, honorable, exciting and close to nature. She introduces the young men succinctly but with touching fine points: one grew up learning about firefighting at his grandfather’s knee, one got teased for his “big calculator wristwatch,” another carried a copy of Goodnight Moon to read to his daughters over the phone when he was away fighting fires. Seven of the Hotshots were new hires, and three of them had babies on the way. Among the team of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots, they were raising 13 children. Intimate identification with these men is central to the emotional impact of the book, and Santos builds that closeness naturally as she characterizes them.

As the Hotshots’ 2013 fire season unfolds, Santos continues to acquaint her reader with these men, communities and fires. Along the way, she neatly braids in various areas of research: the science of weather and forecasting, fire management history, the techniques of wilderness firefighting, the precise work of incident meteorologists, who assess local weather conditions. According to her author’s note, Santos adheres strictly to fact: feelings, thoughts and memories attributed to her characters come directly from her prodigious research. The Yarnell Hill Fire itself was underestimated in its strength and complexity; The Fire Line takes its time charting movements and decisions, not overtly concerned with assigning blame, but raising certain questions.

Santos brings immediacy and familiarity to a larger-than-life disaster with quiet admiration and loyalty to truth. By the time the Granite Mountain Hotshots, men now familiar to the reader, go missing, the tragedy of these losses is deeply felt.

This review originally ran in the April 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 texts.

One Response

  1. […] Fernanda Santos covers Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times. Her experience as a journalist is broad, crossing two continents, several languages and a range of subjects. Her first book, The Fire Line (Flatiron Books), is about the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill, Ariz., wildfire that killed 19 members of the firefighting team the Granite Mountain Hotshots. My review is here. […]

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