For firefighters, answer to why is: Someone has to

Tuesday - 7/9/2013, 5:04am EDT

AP National Writer

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- In his book, "Young Men and Fire," Norman Maclean attempted to convey what a crew experiences in the chaos of a mountain firestorm.

"It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the smoke only occasionally lifts," the late Montana author wrote, "and when it does all that can be seen are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you -- burning cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller."

In American culture, the firefighter is almost a mythic being. Immortalized in movies such as "Hellfighters," ''Backdraft" and "Ladder 49," they do things that most people could never conceive of doing. They are, as we see time and again, the first ones into a disaster and the last ones out.

It is no different in the wildland firefighting community, where men and women armed with little more than axes, shovels and chain saws face mountainsides engulfed in flames and, somehow, hope to bring that force of nature to heel.

"You ask yourself: Why are these people willing to put their lives on the line? For people they don't even know?" retired teacher Sharon Owsley asked last week as she stood on the courthouse square in this town north of Phoenix. "Why do they even do this kind of work that's so highly dangerous? Every day it might not be. But then there's that one day that you may not come home."

For 19 members of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots, that day came June 30, when they were overrun while battling a blaze on a ridge in nearby Yarnell. On Tuesday, firefighters from across the nation will join with the men's families, Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries to honor the men.

The elite Hotshot community is a small one -- there are some 110 crews of 20 nationwide, the vast majority of them west of the Mississippi River. So veteran wildland firefighter Patrick Moore was not surprised to see the names of several friends on the list of the dead.

Moore understands why some might wonder: Why do this? Surely no amount of money or adrenaline rush could be worth the risk of marching up a slope into the maw of death. He said an old joke helps him to keep things in perspective.

"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time," said Moore, superintendent of the Pleasant Valley Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Mesa. "You just chink off a little bit and chink off a little more. And when you get 20 people all firing with some synergy, those 20 bites at a time add up. And before you know it, you're around the fire."

For many, like the three Prescott crew members who were following in their fathers' footsteps, firefighting is literally in their blood. Others, like Brandon Hess, are drawn by a sense of duty.

"I love the outdoors and I love feeling that I have a part in protecting the public lands out there," Hess, superintendent of the Tatanka Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Custer, S.D., said last week from the front lines of a wildfire in Colorado.

To Moore, the Hotshots' motto says it all: "Safety, Teamwork, Professionalism."

"When you become a Hotshot, it becomes a part of you," the 40-year-old former logger said. "It isn't just a job."

And there is nothing romantic about it.

For a Hotshot crew, a typical day begins before dawn. Wearing hard hats, long-sleeve shirts and pants, and thick boots in triple-digit temperatures, the teams cut through swaths of land for hours on end, said Eric Neitzel, a veteran firefighter with U.S. Forest Service.

"It's the worst yard work you've ever done, all day, times a thousand," said Neitzel. "They sleep outside on the line sometimes. No showers for weeks, very little change of clothes. ... You've got dirt in your nails, dirt in your ears, down your shirt, down your neck."

"Hottest, deepest, nastiest," said Moore, who's been with the Pleasant Valley crew 16 years. "That's where we go."

The fare is often a military-style MRE -- meals ready to eat. Even downtime is spent sharpening tools, restocking backpacks and replenishing water supplies, Neitzel said.

And, if they're lucky, these crews may never even see the flames.

"There are times where you might only see smoke, you're so far away from the fire," said Hess, who became a firefighter right out of high school and is in his 15th year as a Hotshot. "And then there's days when you're right on the edge of the fire. It just depends on the complexity."