During a four-hour lay-over in the Portland airport before boarding my flight to Fresno last week, I noticed a small group of men solemnly seated across the room awaiting their flight to Montana.
As the hour passed, not one of them had uttered a single word. Some of the silent travelers donned traditional forest green aramid Nomex cargo pants and packers, still others sported cowboy boots and jeans.
Unknowingly, an older woman beside me had observed the discreet group as well. Smiling, her eyes drawing me once more to the men before meeting mine again, a twinge of knowing shot through me.
“Hotshots. I’d bet my last $20 on it,” I whispered. With a little nod she agreed, then settled back with her People Magazine.
These men, so intensely somber, preoccupied my thoughts the remainder of my trip, even warranting a conversation on the drive home with my other half.
Awakening to the news of the tragic loss of one of the Lolo hotshots, my blood ran cold. The realization that it was quite probable that those precise men I had seen boarding the Montana-bound plane were indeed some of the bravest dragon slayers on earth and had most likely been members of the very crew that had lost their hotshot brother Saturday to the Strawberry fire in Great Basin National Park.
Loss in the line of duty has touched most of us, be it police, soldier, or firefighter. Most recently our very own community was struck by the loss of a dear soul and loving friend while operating a dozer on the Soberanes fire.
It seems no one is immune to such tragedy. Still the sting of knowing the pain that those young men were facing troubles my soul. We take for granted those that race to the fire as we bolt in the opposite direction.
Life is fleeting, there are no guarantees that any of us will lay our heads down tonight to awaken tomorrow to greet yet another day - still these brave warriors rush to the roaring fury of the fire lines daring to confront hellish monsters with the courage of David as he confronted that giant with no more than his trusty slingshot.
Leaving family and friends behind, hotshots get a mere $15 an hour, grunting out 16 hour work days, while carrying 40 plus pounds of equipment. They trade sleeping in their own cozy beds for the unforgiving dusty ground, replenishing spent energy with gourmet MREs, trading oxygen rich air for ash filled air, selfless attempts to stop that which is set to destroy all in its path.
Purple ribbons now adorn the city of Missoula in honor of their fallen hero known for being a true mountain man who’d long dreamt of being a Hotshot when he joined the Lolo crew for his first season earlier this year.
The memorial service was said to be set for a treasured victor, still this seems much too little for the finale of such a gallant warrior.
Hundreds of elite inter-agency hotshots have offered their lives for the sake of others since those first crews were assembled in 1946, and sadly this latest loss most likely won’t be the last.
May we pause a moment midst the hustle of our harried days and lift up those that choose to serve our nation, in every which capacity.
Thank you dear souls ... thank you.