New York Times Phoenix bureau chief Santos looks into a lightning-caused blaze that killed 19 Arizona firefighters in the summer of 2013.
Early on in her first book, the author notes that while the fire itself was the agent of death, it was a string of miscommunications and guesswork—preventable but, in retrospect, seemingly inevitable human error—that sent the Granite Mountain Hotshots to their doom. Determining responsibility for those miscommunications and the poor judgment that resulted has riven the city of Prescott, the Hotshots’ home, and especially its politicians. When considering whether to disband the elite unit, “the only one to have a city as its employer, and only one of two to operate under the auspices of a structural fire department,” city officials had to wrestle more with questions of money and liability than they did the rightness or the necessity of keeping such a team on the books. (There was talk, Santos writes, of privatizing the venture, an idea that is still current.) The events of the fire were well-covered in the national media, in part by this author. Less well known are some of these post-mortem matters, her coverage of which makes a valuable contribution to the literature of disaster preparedness and management—and given that wildfire is a growing problem in the ever more arid West, that literature needs all the good work it can get. As a narrative, though, the book is less satisfying; the prose is flat, and it has all the hallmarks of a stretched-out newspaper story, with the usual clichés, set pieces, and stock descriptions: “Christopher MacKenzie, thirty, was single and a bit of a Don Juan, with a huge shoe collection, entering his ninth fire season”; “Doppler radars look like giant golf balls perched atop squat buildings or steel towers”; “Those were the ingredients for the disaster that was about to unfold.”
It’s no Young Men and Fire, but Santos provides a good summary of terrible events and their aftermath.