Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 1, 2017.

Too Soon?

Hollywood takes on the deadly Yarnell Hill fire, which killed 19 wildland firefighters in 2013

BY ANGELO VERZONI

In June 2013, it had been more than four decades since the hills flanking the western edge of Yarnell, Arizona, had burned. When thunderstorms descended on the dusty town of less than 1,000 people, a lightning strike sparked a fire in the dry, overgrown chaparral. Like many wildfires, it began inconspicuously, but soon, fed by high winds, the fire picked up speed and began acting unpredictably.

A crew of wildland firefighters with the nearby Prescott Fire Department, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were called in, and fought the blaze for two days before it surrounded them, leaving no way out. Nineteen of the 20 hotshots died, making it the fifth-deadliest event for firefighters worldwide since 9/11.

This fall, their story comes to the big screen, reimagined as a Hollywood blockbuster titled Only the Brave and starring Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, and Miles Teller, and directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Oblivion). The film is based in large part on a 2013 GQ magazine article that recounts in painstaking detail the hotshots’ experience battling the fire, mostly through the eyes of Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the only Granite Mountain Hotshot to survive the event.

According to Brian Henington, a veteran wildland firefighter who served as the film’s safety advisor, the movie is one of the most accurate depictions of wildland firefighting captured on film. “I’m hoping firefighters are going to see this and say, ‘This is a very technically sound movie,’” he told NFPA Journal. Henington has been a wildland firefighter for 23 years, and has taught college-level fire science for 16 years. He works in New Mexico, where much of the movie was filmed. “There are going to be some things that are ‘Hollywood,’ for sure, but when you see the actors’ gear, their personal protective equipment, the way they carry themselves, that’s 100 percent how we do it.”

The actors prepped for their hotshot roles in part by taking a 40-hour introductory course on wildland firefighting. Henington said he was impressed by their ability to thrive in the course, specifically praising Brolin, who plays Granite Mountain Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh. “I was amazed at how tough he is,” Henington said. “I was amazed at how much he had studied and learned fire behavior. He’s got a natural leadership style.”

Despite the actors’ chops, it’s the fire itself that steals the show in Only the Brave, Henington said. Most of the shots of flames eating through chaparral weren’t computer-generated, he said, but were captured during prescribed burns that took place in New Mexico.

Not everyone is thrilled about the film. After the first trailer hit the Web, some questioned whether the movie was being released too soon. “If you were here when those young guys from Prescott were lost, it is impossible to look at a movie about them as a movie,” wrote EJ Montini, a columnist for The Arizona Republic. “And now, to say something about the trailer like, ‘It looks good’ or ‘It looks entertaining’ or ‘It looks authentic’ or … anything … seems only to diminish the risk and the sacrifice and the sorrow of the event, which in the minds and hearts of so many who were here during those awful days is still fresh.”

An online documentary series on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Through the Fire, is also slated to come out in October as part of Condé Nast Entertainment’s digital video network.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Photograph: Richard Foreman/Sony Pictures