Real Life ‘Only the Brave’ Firefighter Talks About Surviving the Arizona Wildfires

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Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Four years ago, a devastating fire tore through acres of dried scrub oak and brush outside of Yarnell, Arizona. An elite unit of firefighters, called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, was sent to combat the wildfire and protect the residents of Peeples Valley. Powerful flames overran the crew, and 19 brave souls were lost. Only one member, Brendan McDonough, survived. Now, their story is coming to the big screen in Sony Pictures’ Only The Brave.

“It was meaningful for me to make this film for a lot of reasons,” says McDonough, who served as a consultant and is portrayed by Whiplash actor Miles Teller. “Not only did I want to honor our lost brothers, but I hope that it will inspire others to find the pursuit that brings meaning to their life like what I found with Granite Mountain. Being a firefighter is not a glamorous job by any means, but it is the men and women you have the honor of serving beside that makes it worth it.”

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McDonough and fellow hotshot Pat McCrady worked closely with director Joseph Kosinski to bring viewers a realistic insight of what it takes to fight forest fires. Their shared experiences helped Kosinski bring a gritty authenticity to the screen through the film’s truly talented ensemble, which includes Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Geoff Stults, Jennifer Connelly, and is led brilliantly by Josh Brolin.

“I have been a part of the community for a long time,” says Brolin, who plays superintendent Eric Marsh. “I have a close friend who is a firefighter and went to Eric’s funeral. I felt a responsibility, but we got lucky with the rest of that cast. I took on that leader role and pushed them all pretty hard, but everyone was completely game. There were hotshots on site during our wildfire boot camp, and that made us push ourselves even harder. I was proud to be able to share their story, because these guys are so humble I don’t think they get the appreciation they deserve.”

Now, with fires raging through Northern California, sharing Granite Mountain’s tale of bravery and sacrifice seems as important as ever. McDonough and McCrady see the release as an opportunity to educate the public on what first responders put on the line and encourage better wildfire awareness.

What drew you to be a firefighter?

Brendan McDonough: I was a part of the Fire Explorers program growing up, and so it was always a dream for me to be a firefighter. I had a couple rough younger years, but I was lucky that Eric Marsh decided to give me a second chance.

Pat McCarty: I didn’t grow up living the All-American story of always wanting to become a fireman; it was just something that I fell into. Clayton Whitted, one of the guys we lost in the Yarnell Hill Fire, was my best friend. He had done it for a season and when he came home he told me that I needed to try it out. The next year I took all the classes, and got hired by Eric Marsh to the team that would become the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

What did you find most difficult about the job?

BM: I would have to say everything from the physical demands that it takes to combat a fire, to the mentality. I believe most first responder jobs like this rely on physical strength as well as mental readiness. The job was completely mind-blowing. Looking out at fires that were thousands of acres big. Just witnessing such natural beauty as well as power was completely awe-inspiring.

PM: I was involved with athletics my whole childhood, so I thought I would be prepared for anything. I thought I was in good shape, but that was until I was on a hotshot crew. I think the mindset is a huge part of it as well. The level to which you need to be aware of your surroundings is a whole game. It is hard to explain exactly what it feels like to be that dialed in to your environment.

How were your challenged physically?

BM: I vividly remember the first few hikes I did with Eric Marsh. But they were necessary to prepare for moments like going through the Montana wilderness, because our helicopter is grounded due to too much fog. You are going through brush and walking through rivers in your boots, with no time to stop and dry them. Going through that collective pain and challenge brings you closer together with your crew. There is something amazing about being able to leave footprints in places where another person may not be in years.

PM: Hikes like those were happening every single day. Being on a hotshot crew means going to the places no one else is able to get to. It is the toughest terrain there is in the world. There have been operations where I have hiked through wilderness ten miles in my gear.

What was it like to have these completely unique experiences with wilderness all over the country?

BM: I would say that was one of the amazing parts of being on a hotshot crew. Getting to go places where nobody has set foot in perhaps decades. I remember walking through super remote areas and coming across Native American ruins. We were actually making discoveries because we were in such remote areas.

PM: There is a scene that they put in the movie from when we fought on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon back in 2005. We were on a fire up there, and we had fought it for quite awhile. We were finally able to burn our line after about ten days of work, and we pulled back to the opposite edge to watch the trees fall into the canyon. It was a beautiful sight. You get to see things that nobody else in the world will.

What is it like to take on a raging wildfire?

BM: Everything comes into play, from the weather to the topography. Some of the best parts of the job are that feeling of accomplishment after building that line, cutting and digging for days on end. Getting to burn that piece off, and promote great growth as well as saving homes. Some of the best times are out there on that line talking about football or family, whatever. You go weeks on end without a shower. No cell phone service and no highways in sight. It’s the men and women around you that make this job worth it. It’s one of the most dangerous gigs on the planet, but what makes it worth it is the men and women around you.

PM: It is hard to convey the pure strength and power of a fire that is really getting after it, like you will see in this film. Its force is catastrophic, the way that it can go through an area and leave absolutely nothing. Feeling that heat on your face, and the gusts it is creating by pulling air in to feed itself. That is a feeling that you never forget. Sure it is terrifying, but there is a sense of respect that you build up through your training. Fighting it is a progressive process, there is one step and then another follows it. For a controlled burn there is about three days of work that goes into that. We’ll start with building the line, clear brush, and make a scrap in the dirt for however long is needed. It could be two miles, or it could be ten miles. Once that line is completed we will burn the line, and it needs to be cold, hard black for that. I enjoyed that entire process.

How is fire fighting different than other first responder jobs?

BM: The one thing about fire that is different than other natural disasters is that it also promotes new growth. So while it is devastating, it also is an opportunity to help the forest in the way that it has not done in many years. The difference comes when there are lives and homes at stake. That is where the sense of urgency and service really kicks in. No great feat is accomplished without a great team. Walking into these fires surrounded by your brothers and sisters helps your ability to deal with that moment. It is an especially important message, with what is going on right now.

Speaking on that, how does it feel to hear about what is going on in California?

BM: The firefighters who are out there right now have been fighting this fight since April and they are giving it 110 percent. I know their minds are focused. They are doing the best that they can. It is never easy to go through something like this. I was taken aback when I first heard the news about how much has been lost. I understand what it is like to lose. Our prayers are with everyone. Building into the forest comes with a sense of duty and responsibility to educate the public on why controlled burns and thinning are so important. It is important to try to prevent this from happening, because we are seeing seasonal changes. There are only so many forest service employees who can do only so much during the winter, so it is important to take the opportunity windows when we can.

PM: My heart goes out to the first responders and the families that are affected by this. There are a lot of guys out there fighting fire right now, whose homes may have already burned. It is a tragedy in that sense. These large-scale fires have been around, but our residential areas have expanded deeper into the forest, and quicker recently. The further we continue down that path, the more serious these fires are going to become. I hate to say that this is the new normal, but this may be something we see a lot more of. But I think that is why it is even more important that we have these kinds of conversations.

Only the Brave hits theaters this weekend.

The Eric Marsh Foundation provides support to the families of firefighters lost in duty and suffering with PTSD.

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