Santa Fe's wildland firefighters tied to 'Only the Brave' heroes

Members of city's team to answer questions Saturday after screening of new film

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Only the Brave, a powerful new drama that retells the story of a real-life crew of wildland firefighters, has Santa Fe all over it.

The cityscape stands in for Prescott, Ariz., where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were based. Evangelo's, a West San Francisco Street bar, is the firefighters' favored watering hole. Harrowing wildfire action scenes played out at Santa Fe Studios, where a faux forest outfitted with pyrotechnic movie-magic was built, along with the office-shed the Granite Mountain crew called home. Familiar mountain landscapes are visible throughout.

But the connections between the well-reviewed film and the town that served as its backdrop go beyond the mere visuals.

Santa Fe's own wildland firefighters have the Granite Mountain crew in their DNA.

When the city began to consider a wildland firefighting division of its own almost 10 years back, officials looked to the Prescott, Ariz., model, where the Granite Mountain hotshots had been certified as the country's first municipal hotshot crew -- breaking what Santa Fe Fire Department Chief Erik Litzenberg called the "federal-centric" mold for wildfire operations.

Members of what would become the city's 20-man Atalaya Hand Crew went to Prescott to learn from and mentor with the elite Granite Mountain team.

"Prescott Fire and Santa Fe Fire were evolving and growing in some ways together," Litzenberg said. "Granite Mountain was a couple years ahead of our hand crew in terms of development."

The Atalaya and Granite Mountain crews were both at the 2013 Thompson Ridge Fire, near the Valles Caldera, which began to burn only a few weeks before the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire in central Arizona, where Only the Brave sees its harrowing climax.

So "[Yarnell Hill] hit close to home," said Litzenberg, who served as a subject matter expert and helped compile the accident investigation report in the aftermath of the Arizona blaze, among the deadliest for firefighters in U.S. history. That report helped inform the GQ feature on which Only the Brave was based.

Representatives of the Santa Fe Fire Department were part of the honor guard in the memorial services that followed the Yarnell Hill Fire, too, Litzenberg added.

He and members of the city's wildland program will be on hand for a question and answer session after an Only the Brave screening at 7 p.m. Saturday at Violet Crown. Whether viewers, after the film's devastating finale, will have much appetite for conversation, Litzenberg said he isn't sure.

But the film, especially in the context of recent wildfires in Northern California, amounts to an engrossing portrait of those who protect Western cities and towns from fickle forces of nature.

And it is a reminder that wildfire crews -- even Santa Fe's, which spends most of the year working to reduce fire risks in wooded areas surrounding the city -- are ever ready to answer the call.

"You can't do it on your own. [Wildfires] take collaboration," Litzenberg said. "For you as a community to expect to get things out of that collaboration, you've got to put things in: If there's a community in need, we're willing to loan [wildland firefighters] to you, and we hope you'd do the same thing for us."

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexi­can.com.

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