Mike Miller and Kara Warner
October 21, 2017 11:20 AM

As Northern California prepares to recover from a devastating series of wildfires, the heroic and poignant true story behind one of the worst firefighter tragedies in U.S. history is now in theaters.

Only the Brave tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a highly trained team of wildland firefighters that lost 19 of its 20 members when they became entrapped in the Yarnell Hill blaze in Arizona on June 30, 2013.

The wildfire was ignited by lightning on June 28, 2013, and it quickly spread over 8,300 acres through a combination of strong winds, high temperatures and dry conditions caused by drought. 

Members of another hotshot team, the Blue Ridge Hotshots, tried to save the trapped Granite Mountain crew, but were pushed back by the fire’s immense heat. When members of the Blue Ridge team finally found the bodies, they saw that some of the Granite Mountain team had deployed fire shelters designed to protect wildland firefighters from small flames as a last resort. The shelters were ultimately useless that day against direct contact with the massive inferno.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013. (Not pictured: team members Christopher MacKenzie and Eric Marsh).
Christopher MacKenzie/Sony Pictures

How the crew became entrapped, along with the exact circumstances of the incident — the deadliest of any kind for U.S. firefighters since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 — are still unknown, as the only survivor of the crew, Brendan McDonough (played by Miles Teller in the film), was separated from the group acting as a lookout at the time of their deaths. The men who died were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.

The film focuses more on how they lived, their bravery and their brotherhood as hotshots, an elite crew often compared to the Navy SEALs of firefighting. Hotshots travel the country battling wildfires, and the Granite Mountain crew distinguished itself as the only municipal group to be nationally certified. (Normally teams are run out of larger agencies like the Forest Service).

“I’m really blown away by such an amazing job they did,” says McDonough, now 25, who served as an advisor to the filmmakers and cast. “I think the most important thing, and they nailed it, was the camaraderie.”

McDonough, who was the newest member of the group at the time of the tragedy, has been recovering from PTSD and depression since losing the men he calls “brothers.” He has found healing by working with nonprofits helping members of the fire service, and says he strives to carry on the values he saw in his teammates. “When I see some of their family members I hope they think ‘My son was like that.’ ‘My husband carried himself in that way, he talked about love and compassion and helping others like that,'” he says.

Telling the story right was essential to the filmmakers, who based the movie on an emotional article written by Sean Flynn for GQ. Pat McCarty, a Prescott firefighter who also served as technical advisor, says everyone on set felt that sense of duty. “There are so many people it’s representing — not just the people portrayed in the film but all wildland firefighters, all their family members and anyone that’s ever known one. They all have their eyes on this film and it’s tough for us to go home and explain what the film is like, and it’s tough for us to go home and explain the job, but now people are going to have a little bit of an insight into what it’s like.”

Josh Brolin as Chief Eric Marsh.
Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

To prepare for the role, Josh Brolin, who played team leader Eric Marsh, and the rest of the cast went through firefighter bootcamp. “The fact that we trained with actual Granite Mountain Hotshots I think was a major major thing,” Brolin says. “I think they trusted us when they saw how dedicated we were and how much we were willing to lend ourselves and how lazy we weren’t. I think we got their approval and I think that meant a lot to everybody.”

“They put a lot of effort into it,” McDonough said. “When they came onboard they knew what they were willing to do and it shined through everyday. It wasn’t, ‘Hey how come we have to hike this long?’ It was, ‘Hey how can I improve my stride so I can hike faster and longer?’ They showed up to put out.”

Only the Brave offers a crash course in the dangerous vocation. Hotshots are tasked with controlling towering, fast moving infernos with little more than chainsaws, shovels and drip torches. With incredible speed and efficiency, they dig a line of trenches ahead of the approaching blaze, and then set their own counter-fires with torches. When the wildfire runs into the counter-flame, the two snuff each other out. As the movie explains, they often fight fire with fire.

Brendan McDonough (L) and Miles Teller.

More than just the intense physical training, McDonough says the actors’ emotional investment in the characters stood out. “The time they spent, the questions they asked, how they asked them; they really wanted to know the depth that goes into that person. That is when I knew this was going to be a good film.”

For Brolin, interacting with the fallen hotshots’ families was one of the most essential and difficult parts of preparing for the role. “I think meeting the families, for me personally in the beginning, was very hard because I can’t imagine losing my own son. I think ultimately what they hoped for is that we represent them in the most honorable way we could, which I think we did as a whole.”

In addition to honoring the heroes who died that day, their families and the firefighter community as a whole, the filmmakers hope that Only the Brave helps bring positive change to the service. 

“I’m hoping maybe someone sees this film and gets an idea for some sort of technology that can help these guys with their jobs because it feels like what they go out there with is so primitive: chainsaws and shovels and drip torches,” director Joe Kosinski says. “Is there any way we can use all this technology we have to help these guys do their job safely? NASA is working on a new shelter and drones are a powerful way to get perspective.”

The film has also spurred the creation of a charity, the Granite Mountain Fund, which helps to support firefighting as well as the towns and families connected to hotshots. Only the Brave studio Sony “has played such a huge role in starting the Granite Mountain Fund,” McDonough says. “I’ve worked with all of those nonprofits personally and they’re doing phenomenally.”

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And, as McDonough explains in his book My Lost Brothers, wildland firefighters and their families need more help now than ever. “Wildfires are getting bigger. They’re burning hotter, wider, and longer,” he writes. He thinks the 20,000 firefighters in the field in the West are “not enough.” 

In a description that could apply to many crews battling the recent wildfires in Sonoma County, McDonough writes, “There’s a crew of 20 firefighters working a 32-hour shift on a fire line somewhere in California. They’re bone tired. They haven’t seen their families in weeks. They’re working under supervisors who are exhausted and overworked. When that crew kills the fire they’re on, there are two or three more waiting for them. It’s inevitable that mistakes will be made.”

While wildfires are on the rise, crews like McDonough’s continue to risk their lives to stop them, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars in damages.

Only the Brave is in theaters now.

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