Editor’s Note: This story was written and submitted to us by Curtis Heaton. Curtis’ fire career began in 1985 on engines and hand crews. It included working his way up through the Prescott Interagency Hotshot Crew ranks for ten years to become Superintendent in 1998. Beginning in 2001, he spent four years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the Region 2 Wildland-Urban Interface Coordinator. Afterwards, Curtis became the Forest Fire Management Officer on the Prescott National Forest. Next, he took the reins as Operations Section Chief on the Phoenix-based National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team. Curtis retired in 2019 as the Regional Director of Safety, Fire and Aviation for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.
See You on the Other Side
Ultimately, it is not the good days that define us. It’s the bad days.
By Curtis Heaton
One of my favorite quotes that best describes my efforts in this personal story that I’m about to share with you is from retired U.S. Marine Colonel Eric Carlson: “All history is remembered history.”
If you’re looking for a historical account with complete accuracy, look elsewhere. I have done the best I can to tell the truth. But it is my truth as I remember it, or at least how I have chosen to remember it. I considered researching locations, times, dates, etc. to ensure historical accuracy. But I am not going to pretend to be a historian.
I am better suited as a storyteller. An old firefighter sharing his memories—accurate or otherwise. To all of my brothers and sisters in wildland fire, thank you for being a part of my life. And to those who have moved on, I hope I do you honor.
“Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times . . . First, considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into the main fire that consumes, and if you are a Catholic about all that remains of you is your cross.”
—From Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire”
June of 1994
“We do it here!” shouted Dewain, the Prescott Hotshot Foreman.
Dewain’s face was red and he was dripping sweat. He wasn’t fatigued but rather “feeling the jazz” as Dewain liked to say. I looked into his eyes, contemplating his words and then glanced over my shoulder. The fire was gaining on us.
No more than 200 yards behind me, a 30-foot wall of flame was moving rapidly through the chaparral. Its flaming front stretched across my field of view, steadily devouring everything in its path.
This was bad.
“We do it here and we do it together,” Dewain said to me and Brian—his words landing somewhere between a question and an order.
A few seconds passed between us as I scanned the topography. The experts will tell you that I was experiencing a period of acute stress. They’d inform how, inside that moment, my body—specifically, my amygdala—was doing what it was designed to do: pumping out adrenaline and other cool hormones and stuff in response to the stress.
This is commonly referred to as the “Flight or Fight Response.” This automatic internal reaction was developed in the human brain back in the days of giant cave bears and sabretooth tigers. The response has been refined over the millennia and is stored in each of our brains for moments such as this one.
After 15 to 20 minutes of attempting to outrun a wall of fire, the idea of stopping was not registering. Inside my brain, “Flight” was winning the argument.
Fortunately for me, six years of firefighting experience on a hotshot crew was also stored nearby in my prefrontal cortex. And the analytical part of my brain, the cerebral cortex, was trying to convince my amygdala to chill-out for a moment so it could think.
I quickly calculated the distance and time between us and the fire. Based on the fire’s current rate-of-spread and the speed we had been able to travel, I estimated how much more country we could cover.
I looked farther out to the east, our general direction of travel as we were attempting to outrun the fire, and spied a rocky bluff. The math said I might be able to make it. “A guy could survive on top of that” I thought, “and the helicopter could pick us up.”
A Blanket of Angry Gray Fog
Although the terrain grew steeper and rockier and the brush appeared even thicker, somewhere near that rock outcropping, a Jet Ranger helicopter, 2 Tango Kilo (2TK), was holding a hover, unable to get under the smoke column. This was the same ship that had dropped us off just 30 minutes earlier.
That smoke column was only 50-100 feet above our heads, flowing on a current of convection like a blanket of angry gray fog.
While my prefrontal cortex was engaged in debate with my amygdala, Tommy, the pilot, was looking for a place where he could hover low enough in the smoke for us to grab onto his skids—the rocks and vegetation prevented a landing.
He couldn’t see us. But he knew we were close as we had communicated our movement over the Air-to-Ground frequency, the only frequency that provided us contact with the outside world.
Dewain’s eyes met mine again and he seemed to read my thoughts—or perhaps he had already run the same calculations. The next words out of my mouth would decide my fate—
“Down here, I found something!” Brian suddenly yelled. This third member of our party was a second-year crewmember. A moment earlier, as our brains first engaged in that mental judo response, Brian had disappeared through the brush directly in front of Dewain.
Brian had stumbled into a pile of boulders stacked upon each other. The area under these boulders was devoid of vegetation—almost cave like. What appeared to be a challenging obstacle (and had created this momentary pause in our flight) was actually a natural fortification.
“In here!” Brian yelled again.
Dewain and I quickly moved in behind Brian to see what had him all excited. Brian had inadvertently made the decision for all of us—and saved our lives in the process. God bless the Irish!
Our Training Took Over
Training is a good thing. “Fight the way you train; train the way you fight” is a good business model. It was here that our training took over.
We began throwing our fusees and sig bottles full of gas and oil away from us. No one had said the words “fire shelter” yet. It was classic denial, but our actions spoke for us.
I figured we had two to three minutes before the fire arrived.
We moved mechanically, finding the best place to deploy. We had about 20-square feet to work with. Each of us picked a spot. Brian slightly below me—he and I almost touching. Dewain was 10 feet away, slightly higher and off to my right.
I could no longer see the fire, but I could hear it. It was getting much louder, growing more intense. Feeding itself.
I Tore the Plastic on My Fire Shelter
What none of us knew is that the flame front we were running from was the least of our concerns. The real threat was farther below us and exploding up the drainage we had just entered. The fire had made a classic pincer movement and developed a second head perfectly aligned with the very drainage we had assumed was our escape route.
About the same time as our landing back at the LZ occurred, the “secure heel” of the fire had blown out, moving laterally into the main drainage and creating a second, independent head. It was racing unabated right to our location. To awkwardly borrow a military analogy: We had stumbled into the perfect ambush.
Reality set in quickly as I tore the plastic on my fire shelter. There was no longer any hesitation, no stigmas to worry about, this was survival. I remember saying “I will see you on the other side” to my partners as I fumbled with unfolding my shelter. I then attempted to roll into it. There was a large boulder above me which prevented the traditional stand and drop deployment.
I became tangled in the bottom straps of the shelter. I grabbed my trusty buck knife and cut the straps, misplacing my right glove in the process. As I pulled the shelter around me, my world went dark.
I heard one last radio transmission over my King radio from Dewain to Air Attack. An air tanker was inbound. Dewain was calling in a salvo drop directly on top of us. I thought this could be one hell of a fire story at the bar. I pictured a cold beer in hand, crowd gathered around and me saying: “There we were, about to get burned over when suddenly . . .”
I seem to remember hearing that tanker when it came overhead—roaring louder than the fire. “Here comes the rain,” I thought. Nothing. (I would later learn that although the drop was spot-on, the convection from the fire lifted the drop and carried it several hundred yards away, slamming it into the hovering 2TK and covering the helicopter in pink goo.)
Brad, the pilot of the P2V Air Tanker, risked his own life with that drop—almost crashing his aircraft in the process. (I would love to hear his story.) The same with Tommy and 2TK. He was so close, that retardant could have knocked him out of the air.
So here were two pilots flying through a convection column in the mountains, mere feet above the ground with little to no visibility. For those of you looking for heroes in this story, here they are. Those two pilots who risked it all for three knucklehead hotshots.
The Heat was Unbearable
So no retardant. No cool story for the bar. No last minute miracle. Just noise, flames and heat. Within seconds, the roar became intense, like a freight train passing overhead. My darkened shelter became a laser light show as all of the pin pricks and abrasions on my shelter allowed beams of light to enter. For a brief moment I recognized the unique beauty this situation created. It was really cool.
Then it got hot, really really hot.
The heat was unbearable. All oxygen seemed to instantly evaporate and breathing became impossible. My heart rate quickly accelerated as my body worked harder and harder to find oxygen. I had been saturated with sweat from power hiking in 90-degree temperatures. Now I was instantly dry. No air.
“I need air!” my mind was shouting to me. It reminded me of being smashed by a wave in the ocean and swimming hard for the surface—with your lungs about to explode.
Searching for a cool place, I used my bare fingers to claw through the thin layer of earth and then at the granite rock beneath me. My fingers now bloody, I pressed my face into that rock. I was desperately looking for anything that resembled oxygen. Anything that wouldn’t burn.
As the fire roared overhead, I became lightheaded. I yelled one last response to something intangible that came from either Brian or Dewain. “Hanging!” was all I could get out before the noise and heat engulfed our little cave and each of us entered our own personal battle for survival.
I felt my back burning and then I began to black out . . .
Six Hours Earlier . . .
Lightning came early to western Arizona that year. It had been an exceptionally dry winter, coming off of a couple very wet years. Lots of grass in the low- and mid-elevations. The older decadent brush registered low live fuel moisture content from the onset of spring and had most likely decided to sit out the growing season. A rare perfect storm scenario.
Once every 10 or 20 years this scenario plays out in the Southwest. As a wildland firefighter, I saw it in 1994, the early 2000s, and again in 2013. That first time, in 1994, I (barely) lived through it.
Because we rely so heavily on experience, it is difficult to register this elevated level of risk in these unique conditions—until you see it firsthand. The significance of this scenario would play out with devastating effect in July of 1994 in western Colorado and again in July of 2013 near Yarnell, Arizona—in an area creepily similar to where I was fighting for my own life there inside my shelter in June of 1994.
On the morning of June 1, 1994 the Prescott Hotshots were arriving on the scene of the Mackenzie Fire located in the Hualapai Mountains of western Arizona to fight yet another fire on BLM land in the middle of nowhere. We had just wrapped-up a fire the night before, the third fire of the season for us.
Had we addressed “risk” back then the way we do now, the Mackenzie Fire may never have been staffed. The only thing of “value” was the wilderness. A wilderness of decadent brush and supposedly some endangered desert tortoise. I never saw any tortoises. If I had, I would have shared my shelter with them.
The Pleasant Valley Hotshots (now the Mesa Hotshots) had arrived on the Mackenzie Fire earlier and hiked in to the heel. They established an anchor point on the heel. I never actually saw or communicated with any of them that day.
The fire was 100 or so acres when we arrived. Tony, the Superintendent of the Prescott Hotshots, was asked to take over the fire as ICT3. Dewain, the crew Foreman (we call them Captains today) took the crew and I, as Senior Squad Boss, assumed the number two role. Tony and Dewain had reconned the fire and located an LZ in the black about three quarters up the fire’s right flank.
Dewain, plus one Helitack, then flew up to the LZ in an old Bell 47 (think of the TV show M.A.S.H.). Our assignment was to shuttle into the LZ and split the crew, with half moving down toward the Pleasant Valley Hotshots and the other half focused on securing the head before the heat of the day.
Standard tactics. One foot in the black. Anchor and flank with support from air tankers.
Air Attack was working the opposite flank with the tankers until we moved into place. The retardant was holding. By 1200, the fire was looking good. Minimal activity. No major wind was forecasted with temperatures in the 90s and single digit RH. Just another day fighting fire in Arizona. We would be around it by dark by simply hot-spotting and cold trailing the edge.
Seemed Like an Eternity
The Prescott Crew was at “Helibase”. I put this in quotations because it was merely a dead-end road at a mining site with a single Bell 47. The Bell 47 and a pickup Helitack Crew had been out tagging Desert Bighorn Sheep in the area and responded to the fire.
Shortly after our arrival, the Phoenix BLM Helitack crew had arrived and began to organize the operation which is why I ended up in the Jet Ranger (2TK) and not the Bell 47. I’ll skip the background on helicopters and crew shuttles and helibase stuff. These things rarely go as planned, particularly during a transition. The Helitack folks were professionals and let’s just say it took time to safely sort out the aircraft, frequencies, do the load calculations, etc.
The significance of this helicopter/helibase/air show initial logistics is that Brian and I sat in the newly arrived 2TK at the helibase for what seemed like an eternity before finally lifting off to fly to Dewain’s location on the fire. This was as much to do with the air tankers dropping on the fire as anything. I never found out for sure, but just figured that this is the kind of stuff that happens on most fires.
Fire was Much More Active
As we approached the fire in T2K, I was unable to get a view of the main fire, specifically the right flank where we were to land. Heading east from helibase, we intentionally swung wide on the left flank to avoid the air tankers. This, in turn, forced us to fly below the crest of the ridge.
The combination of terrain and smoke blocked my view of the main fire. We then crested the ridge, turning back to southwest, flying through the smoke and descending along the right flank to our LZ. We had basically flown a big circular pattern around the head of the fire. If that pattern had been around the heel—well, I’d have nothing to write about.
I was in the front seat with a headset. I remember talking with Tommy, the pilot, as we descended through the column. The ship was bounced around from turbulence and it was becoming obvious the fire was much more active than when we had loaded the aircraft.
After one noteworthy bump, Tommy looked at me and smiled (he always seemed to be smiling) and said: “Looks like the fire is really picking up.” I said: “Keeps things interesting” or some similar false bravado statement as my spidey sense was telling me that something wasn’t right.
This was verified when I realized we were about to land and I saw Dewain and the Helitack guy standing in a small clearing out in the middle of the green. The fire was a quarter mile away. I wondered to myself: “WTF? Why are we landing here?”
Failing to Break the Error Chain – Sealing My Fate
There comes a point in any good adventure story when the storyteller says: “I knew something was wrong, but . . .” We’re now at that point. The thing is, I could have stopped it all right there. All I had to do was not get off the helicopter. Switch over to Air-to-Ground and tell Dewain and the Helitack guy to get in—although we would have been overloaded on weight.
I looked out of the aircraft at Dewain who was intently peering back at the fire and talking to the Helitack guy. It just didn’t feel right.
The door opened and I stepped off the ship, failing to break the error chain—and, simultaneously, sealing my fate. From this point forward, I was along for the ride.
The Helitack guy—who I later determined to be the most intelligent person I encountered that day—could not get onboard the helicopter fast enough. The rationale that Dewain later shared with me was 2TK couldn’t carry all of us due to weight so Dewain never considered evacuating the spot.
Helitack (who actually belonged to the Bell 47 crew) wanted out of there. Get him out, us in, and get to fighting fire. If things went south, we should have enough allowable payload for the three hotshots to get on the next load.
As the helicopter lifted off. Dewain, Brian and myself were all alone. Dewain was talking to Air Attack and I went to the edge of the clearing where I could look down and see the fire boiling up. All I could really see was the smoke—but it was obvious this was an active part of the fire.
More confused than angry, I yelled over at Dewain: “What the f__k is going on?” Also more confused than angry, he replied: “Where the f__k have you been?”
A Simple Plan
In retrospect, to perceive the entire picture, here’s something else you should know. From the time Dewain had flown up to the fire to the time Brian and I landed, an hour had elapsed. Remember the helicopter/helibase/air show logistics comment I made earlier?
Dewain quickly explained how the Bell 47 pilot wouldn’t land in the black. Dewain had therefore deviated from the original plan. He decided to get dropped off here, wait for Brian and me to land with a chainsaw, then hike to edge of the fire and build a helispot adjacent to the black.
At that time, the fire was just creeping around. Okay, good plan. Well, like all good plans, it had a shelf life. The plan’s shelf life was about 20 minutes. And we had already eaten-up an hour.
All that aside, the situation was not dire. We may have been in the middle of the green with a wildfire below us and lacking any kind of plan but we had tools and we had talent. I grabbed a fusee from Brian’s pack and started lighting.
My plan was simple. Burn a black ring around our green LZ. Turn it into a safety zone and wait for the fire to reach us. Because there was no wind, I was confident that we could control our little burnout. By now, Dewain was having second thoughts. He radioed T2K to drop off Helitack at helibase and then return for us if we were unable to secure this location.
Like all good stories, after the “I knew something was wrong . . .” moment, next comes the “Oh Sh*t” moment. Brian and I had invested a couple of minutes into our burnout when we all looked up and said: “Oh Sh*t”.
The main fire was taking off. It was now early afternoon and the conditions had aligned in favor of the fire. The head, above us and to the north of our location, took off racing up the hill. Although it was impressive, we were on the flank. Even though this presented no threat to us, it was becoming clear that this thing was going to outrun any of our suppression efforts.
About that time, the flank of the fire approximately one-quarter mile away and directly below us decided to join in on the fun and also stood up. And the wind arrived.
The Next Decision Point
Enter the next decision point. Stay at the LZ and turn our doughnut of black into a safety zone? Or start hiking?
Dewain said: “We have an escape route. It’s down this drainage to the east straight to the heel of the fire.” Oh, did I mention that none of us had a map? Did I mention that I couldn’t see the fire due to our approach pattern, terrain and smoke?
I trusted Dewain. And I could read the land well enough to understand what he meant. I was cool with it. This movement would have us travel parallel to the fire for a few hundred yards and then drop into a drainage moving downhill and away from the fire’s direction of spread. The Pleasant Valley Hotshots had secured the bottom (no radio contact by the way) so we just had to avoid the active flank and the head which was moving away from us anyway.
We grabbed everything we brought with us, which included: chainsaw, two bundles of tools, several backpack pumps, fuel, and our personal packs. Even though we were loaded down, we weren’t about to leave anything behind other than the piss pumps.
We moved out. Within a few minutes, I looked back as the flank of the fire overran the LZ. (As we would later learn, our little burnout worked. The piss pumps survived!)
Hike Quickly Turns Into a Race
I have always been a fitness guy. Not as much back then as I am now. I was 27 in June of 1994, so being a badass came naturally. Now, comfortably into my 50s, I have to work really hard to come close to that level of fitness.
In that year, 1994, I had been a hotshot for six years. Dewain was a former Navy SEAL whose PT program bordered on insane (stuff that gets you fired today). My point, as a Prescott Hotshot, I was in great shape. I think both Brian and Dewain had beat me in our last six-mile run a few days prior. So let’s just say that all three of us were in exceptional physical condition.
Our “hike” quickly turned into a race.
The fire was increasing in intensity by magnitudes. Again, what we didn’t know and could not see is that the entire perimeter of the fire was blowing out. There was no secure heel. All of the retardant had been compromised and the part of the fire formally known as the “heel” was flanking right into the very canyon we thought of as an escape route. This would become a new “head” for the fire with ideal wind and topographic alignment aimed directly at the three amigos.
At some point, as we realized we were starting to lose the race, we dropped the bundles of tools to gain speed. I held on to the chainsaw for as long as I could for two reasons: 1) It may be needed to cut an LZ; and 2) It was brand new. Yep, it was on its very first fire.
If I lost that saw I figured I would never hear the end of it. Budgets were tight back then. A brand new Stihl 044 was the state of the art, total badass, hotshot gear. Very soon, however, common sense prevailed. As we crossed a sand wash I sat it down and made a mental note of its location—hoping we could come back and find it intact. (Someone found it later. It had burned to a crisp. Its burned-out carcass would decorate the saw shop for years to come.)
We were now moving with speed and focus. But it was rough going. Climbing over boulders, busting through brush. I would estimate our speed at four miles-per-hour. I remember climbing over these big-ass boulders and slipping. Scraping knees; stumbling. Brush tugging at my old-school Nomex jeans.
At one point, I slipped on a particularly large boulder. Dewain grabbed me and pulled me up with one hand. It was almost super human. Adrenaline is really an amazing drug. Someone should bottle it.
The fire was now closing the gap. After 15 minutes of this, we ended up at the head of the drainage, our so-called “escape route.” That’s when the luckiest Irishman on the planet and my friend for life Brian, stumbled upon his pile of boulders.
Time does not register under a fire shelter. Seconds are hours and minutes flash by an in instant.
After the fire passed over us, I was the first one to stick my head out. I had my camera in my shirt pocket and it somehow survived the heat (most of our gear was damaged or destroyed). I remember being high as a kite, apparently from carbon monoxide poisoning. I started snapping pictures.
I got a picture of Dewain coming out of his shelter and eventually Brian. Brian was funny. When I said it was safe to come out, he said: “No, I’m good here. I’m not coming out.” Next, he said: “I got an idea. They should put SCBAs in these things. We could get rich.”
I laughed so hard black snot shot out my nose, covering my face. Dewain was having trouble talking. He, too, was blowing black gunk all over the place.
I checked my radio which had also survived with me inside the shelter. Those old Bendix-Kings were indestructible. I dialed-up Air Attack who had been circling for some time unable to see us due to our little “cave” and all of the smoke.
It’s safe to say that we had been presumed dead. Word had quickly spread of our untimely demise.
I told Air Attack we were all okay and we were “Breaking out the Copenhagen.” He repeated those exact words over the radio—knowing the rest of the crew at helibase couldn’t hear us but they could hear him. Apparently, my words triggered great rejoicing!
‘No One Should Have Survived’
The long walk back to the LZ was painful. We had to lean on each other. Each step took immense effort. Our lungs felt like they were full of concrete.
Our sh*t was all burned up and our faces were crinkled-up like little old men. Saying we were dehydrated was an understatement.
Even so, generally speaking, we were doing pretty good. Even though, as the Investigation Team and the few other firefighters who eventually made it to our deployment site all said: “No one should have survived.”
Tommy was waiting for us in 2TK. He never left us. I crawled into his ship and sat on a retardant-covered seat. I could barely see out of the window. It was covered in dried pink goo. How do you get aerially delivered retardant inside an airborne helicopter? If I didn’t have pictures to prove it I wouldn’t believe it. Like I said, that’s hero sh*t.
Our Superintendent Tony and those unnamed dispatchers out there did an amazing job getting Life Flight and Advanced Life Support out to the middle of nowhere. That probably saved our lives. As soon as we arrived back at helibase we had a Flight Nurse shoving IVs and oxygen into us.
Later at the Kingman Hospital, the ER Doctor said we should be dead solely based on our carbon monoxide levels. I remember him saying those exact words: “You should be dead.” That was his professional medical evaluation. OK. Great. Thanks, Dude. But I really didn’t care, I was sucking up IVs and O2 like it was a free happy hour.
My bros were OK. Life was good. But, damn, did I stink!
Six Weeks Later . . .
Billy’s Western Bar was the unofficial watering hole of the Prescott Hotshots.
On July 14, several empty pitchers cluttered the bar as we all watched the South Canyon tragedy unfold on national television. I told one of my fellow hotshots sitting next to me: “I know what their last moments felt like.”
It wasn’t meant to be a “tough guy” statement. It was me dealing with my own post-traumatic stress that lingered—and would continue to linger—for the rest of my life.
I wondered why I lived and they did not. I could share with them those first two levels of death that Norman Maclean describes: physical exhaustion and the slipping into the world of those “red and blue darts.”
I could feel their last breaths, their fears. The noise, the heat . . .
I could share that much with them. Fortunately for me, that’s where it ends.
And Looking Back Today
I relived everything again in the fall of 2013 as I followed in the footsteps of the Granite Mountain Hotshots: Walking through the saddle that led to the deployment zone. Looking down at those markers where the 19 made their last stand. The ranch house/safety zone a few minutes farther.
Again, I can share the physical death, those red and blue darts . . .
The difference between me and them? I don’t know.
I don’t think firefighters wake-up and ask themselves: What mistakes can I make today? Sh*t happens. Sometimes you just have a bad day and a bad day in the fire business, well, it can be fatal. We should honor the fallen by learning, not judging.
I often wonder why I was spared; so I try to pay it forward. Without that experience would I have worked tirelessly to make our community stronger, to focus on leadership and risk, and to eventually rise to the highest qualification levels as Ops and IC, and ending my career as a Regional Fire Director? Probably not.
Ultimately, it is not the good days that define us. It’s the bad days. And more importantly, who we become as a result of those bad days. Take care of each other.