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Only the Brave (2017)

Starring Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Connelly

Josh Brolin
Born: February 12, 1968
Santa Monica, California, USA
Eric Marsh
Born: September 29, 1969
Birthplace: Wilkesboro, North Carolina, USA
Death: June 30, 2013, Yarnell, Arizona, USA (wildfire)
Jennifer Connelly
Born: December 12, 1970
Catskill Mountains, New York, USA
Amanda Marsh
Miles Teller
Born: February 20, 1987
Downingtown, Pennsylvania, USA
Brendan McDonough
Born: August 20, 1991
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, USA
James Badge Dale
Born: May 1, 1978
New York City, New York, USA
Jesse Steed
Born: September 28, 1976
Birthplace: Cottonwood, Arizona, USA
Death: June 30, 2013, Yarnell, Arizona, USA (wildfire)
Taylor Kitsch
Born: April 8, 1981
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
Christopher MacKenzie
Born: September 12, 1982
Birthplace: Fontana, California, USA
Death: June 30, 2013, Yarnell, Arizona, USA (wildfire)
Jeff Bridges
Born: December 4, 1949
Los Angeles, California, USA
Duane Steinbrink
Born: January 22, 1952
Birthplace: USA
Andie MacDowell
Born: April 21, 1958
Gaffney, South Carolina, USA
Marvel Steinbrink
Born: June 15, 1952
Birthplace: USA

Questioning the Story:

What caused the Yarnell Hill Fire?

The Only the Brave true story reveals that, like in the movie, the wildfire was caused by a lightning strike on June 28, 2013, approximately 1.5 miles from Yarnell, Arizona. The town, which is located roughly 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, has a population of approximately 700 citizens.

What is the difference between a "hotshot" and a normal firefighter?

A "hotshot" is a firefighter who fights fires with fire instead of water. Normal municipal firefighters put out fires with water, which often includes things like building fires and house fires. A hotshot contains an inferno buy using fire to burn a line through the fire's fuel path. These controlled burns create a control line that the advancing fire cannot cross.

Before joining the Granite Mountain Hotshots, had Brendan McDonough really been a druggie petty criminal with a child on the way?

Yes. In the Only the Brave movie, Miles Teller's character, Brendan McDonough, is a former heroin junkie with a burglary conviction for stealing a GPS. He has a child on the way with his girlfriend and is looking to turn his life around. All of that is in line with the true story. "The hotshot crew was the best thing that ever happened to me," says the real Brendan McDonough. "It saved my life. I probably would have continued doing drugs, I probably would have ended up in prison or with an overdose - or dead. I was a dad before I got hired. I felt like a failure because I couldn't support my daughter, because no one wanted to hire a felon. I couldn't even get a job at McDonald's flipping burgers. It was a dark period in my life."

McDonough credits the hotshot crew with teaching him how to be a man and a father, and he shares his story of redemption in his memoir My Lost Brothers (re-titled Granite Mountain). The book gives a firsthand, minute-by-minute account of the Yarnell Hill Fire tragedy as it unfolded. He says that he wasn't Eric Marsh's first choice when he was hired. "Three guys washed out," says McDonough, who was in his third season with the crew when the tragedy happened.

The real Brendan McDonough (left) had a burglary conviction and was involved with drugs before joining the hotshots, which turned his life around. Miles Teller (right) as Brendan in the movie.

Do fire helicopters really suck water from people's swimming pools?

Yes. In an eye-opening scene early in the movie, a fire helicopter sucks water from someone's swimming pool. Surprisingly, this is a rather common occurrence. There are plenty of videos online of fire helicopters taking water from lakes, ponds, and both private and public pools. Watch a video of a fire helicopter drinking from a pool.

Did Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink, portrayed by Jeff Bridges, really guide the creation of the Granite Mountain Hotshots?

No. Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink is a real guy who did watch over the team and was indeed close to Eric and Amanda Marsh, but he wasn't the one who guided the creation of the hotshots. That task was shouldered by former Deputy Fire Chief Darrell Willis, who is not represented in the movie. Instead, the filmmakers have the Steinbrink character pulling double duty at times, likely in an effort to trim down the number of characters in the movie and to make Jeff Bridge's role more substantial.

How did the real Eric Marsh meet his wife Amanda?

Fact-checking Only the Brave confirmed that the real Eric Marsh (portrayed by Josh Brolin in the movie) met his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly in the film) in 2007 in a 12-step program for alcoholism. Amanda's gateway into alcoholism began when she was 8, after she witnessed several gruesome murders while visiting a friend's home. An escaped inmate entered the home and murdered the parents, their daughter, and a neighbor who was visiting. The murders haunted Amanda and she turned to alcohol to cope.

The real Amanda and Eric Marsh on their wedding day in 2010 (left), and actors Josh Brolin and Jennifer Connelly in the movie (right). Facebook

Did Eric Marsh's wife Amanda really rescue and rehabilitate horses?

Yes. After Eric and Amanda wed in 2010, a year later Amanda (played by Jennifer Connelly in the movie) started a business training horses and trimming hooves on their ranch. As Eric looked after his hotshots crew and was away during fire season, Amanda tended to the horses and worked to grow her business. She traveled to other ranches working on horses, making house calls. She had loved horses since childhood and Eric was gifted with horses too. -AZCentral

The night before heading to the Yarnell Fire, did Brendan McDonough tell his boss that he wanted to leave the hotshots?

Not exactly. In the Only the Brave movie, Miles Teller's character tells Eric Marsh that he wants to quit the hotshots and become part of a structural team so that he can see his daughter more. According to McDonough's memoir, he discussed his future with Eric Marsh quite some time before the Yarnell Fire. Unlike the movie, Marsh didn't scold him and tell him no one would hire him with his criminal background. The real Marsh stood by the decision and said, "Whatever you need to do for your daughter, you go ahead and do that. I support you fully."

Did Eric Marsh get into a fight with his wife Amanda the night before he left for the Yarnell Fire?

No. In the Only the Brave movie, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) gets into an argument with his wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) while they are driving home from the Whiskey Row bar where they had been hanging out with the crew. She tells him that she wants to have a child, which is contrary to what they had agreed upon. Eric makes her stop the truck and storms off, ending up at Duane Steinbrink's house. He eventually reconciles with Amanda the following morning. Most of the scenes that take place the night before the crew leaves were either made up entirely or happened days or weeks earlier. In real life, there is no record of the Marshes fighting the night before he left for the Yarnell Fire.

Were the Granite Mountain Hotshots really made up of former municipal firefighters who trained to earn elite status?

Yes. The Granite Mountain Hotshots formed in 2002 as a group within the Prescott Volunteer Fire Department. They trained under the supervision of Eric Marsh (depicted by Josh Brolin in the movie). They first operated as a fuels mitigation crew until they transitioned to a handcrew in 2004. In 2008, they became a hotshot crew (Crew 7) with their own firehouse where their equipment was kept. They were the first municipal crew to ever become a hotshot unit. Most are created by bigger agencies like the Forest Service. As depicted in the movie, they fought fires like the 2011 Horseshoe 2 Fire in southern Arizona.

Under the supervision of Eric Marsh (left), the firefighters trained to become hotshots. Josh Brolin (right) as Marsh in the Only the Brave movie. Facebook

Had most of the firefighters been there since the creation of the Granite Mountain Hotshots?

No. The movie implies that most of them had been at each other's side since the beginning. Due to the danger of the job and the time away from home, the turnover rate among hotshots is high. While a few members of the crew had been there for many years, most hadn't. In fact, some were only in their first or second season.

Did Eric Marsh receive a phone call at sunrise telling him that the hotshots were to head to Yarnell?

No, in real life they had a little more advance warning. Eric Marsh received an email (not a phone call) at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening, the night before they left. He set the phone tree in motion, telling the crew to report to Station 7 by 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

How many members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Hill Wildfire?

The Only the Brave true story confirms that 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives on Sunday June 30, 2013 while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire. Those killed include Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Anthony Rose, 23; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Clayton Whitted, 28; Dustin DeFord, 24; Garret Zuppiger, 27; Grant McKee, 21; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; John Percin Jr., 24; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; Eric Marsh, 43; Robert Caldwell, 23; Scott Norris, 28; Sean Misner, 26; Travis Carter, 31; Travis Turbyfill, 27; Wade Parker, 22; and William "Billy" Warneke, 25. It was the deadliest U.S. wildfire since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire that killed 29 and the greatest loss of firefighters since the September 11 attacks.

Why did so many firefighters die?

Erratic winds reaching more than 22 mph, temperatures over 100 °F, drought conditions, and the topography caused the fire to spread quickly in an unpredictable fashion. On the day of the tragedy, the fire had spread rapidly from 300 acres to over 2,000 acres. The northwest direction of the wind was pushing the fire uphill toward communities. In a fierce, monsoon-like thunderstorm, the winds had changed direction on the firefighters. Each of the 19 hotshots who died had deployed an emergency fire shelter (pictured below), but not all of the deceased were found inside them. The shelters are not designed to endure the direct flames of a burnover. They were found charred and only fragments remained.

As the fire was closing in, Eric Marsh's voice came over the radio, "Yeah, I'm here with Granite Mountain Hotshots. Our escape route has been cut off. We are preparing a deployment site and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush. I'll give you a call when we are under the she- the shelters." The call never came.

Fire shelters are not able to withstand the direct flames of a fire. The Granite Mountain Hotshots' fire shelters were found melted and in fragments. Fire Shelter Image: USFS

If a thunderstorm came, shouldn't it have suppressed the fire?

The atmosphere is so dry in the Desert Southwest that big raining thunderstorms often evaporate before the moisture hits the ground. However, as with the Yarnell Hill Fire, the lightning still reaches the ground and sparks the dry tinder. This is what started the wildfire two days earlier. -The Weather Channel

Did any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots survive?

Like in the movie, the true story confirms that only one member of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots crew survived. 21-year-old Brendan McDonough (nicknamed "Donut" and played by Miles Teller in the movie) had been serving as a fire and weather lookout when the fire encroached on his position and threatened to overtake it. The crew told him to get out, since at that moment the fire was closer to him than the crew. He was forced to hike out on foot, and that's when Brian Frisby, Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Hotshots (renamed the Blue River Hotshots in the movie), located him after monitoring radio communications between McDonough and the Granite Mountain IHC Captain. McDonough and Frisby moved the crew's vehicles to a safer spot, which is what they were doing when the entrapment of the Granite Mountain crew was happening.

Brendan McDonough wrote a first-person account of the Yarnell Hill Fire in his memoir My Lost Brothers, which was re-titled Granite Mountain. He suffered from depression and PTSD after losing his friends, but found healing through work with nonprofits that assist members of the fire service and their families.

Brian Frisby and other Blue Ridge Hotshots tried to rescue the trapped Granite Mountain crew, but intense flames and heat kept them from getting to the men. Later, Frisby and an assistant finally made their way to the entrapment location, but it was too late. They were among the first to discover the deployed fire shields and the remains of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots.

My Lost Brothers (re-titled Granite Mountain) was written by the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire, Brendan McDonough (right).

Was Brendan McDonough really assigned to be the lookout because he was recovering from a rattlesnake bite?

No. Unlike Miles Teller's character in the movie, we found no evidence that the real Brendan McDonough was bitten by a rattlesnake and spent time in the hospital recovering. According to reports, the reason he was put on lookout duty was because he was still getting over the flu.

Why did the Granite Mountain Hotshots leave the safety of a previously burned "black" area?

"I have no clue," says lone hotshot survivor Brendan McDonough. "I know they were asked to come to Yarnell if it was possible and Eric said, 'No, we are going to stay here in the black.' And for some reason they left." Being in the "black" means that you're in an area that the fire has already burned. McDonough says he did overhear a discussion on the radio about his supervisor, Eric Marsh, going on ahead to make sure the route was good to the ranch they were hoping to reach, which was supposed to be a safe spot. Marsh later told Jesse Steed, the acting supervisor of the crew for that day, that they should start heading down to the ranch. In the movie, the ranch is shown to be a group of older buildings, but in real life the structures were silver and shiny.

In the movie, Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) can be seen taking pictures on the day of the tragedy. The real Chris MacKenzie took pictures and video of the fire on the day of the tragedy with a handheld camera. The video shows the Granite Mountain Hotshots observing the fire from the safety of a ridge before they descended into a much more hazardous area. Ultimately, the movie sticks to the true story here. No one knows why the hotshots decided to leave the safety of a black area and descend into the canyon, and the film doesn't try to guess.

Above is a screenshot from the last video footage of the Granite Mountain Hotshots alive shortly before the tragedy. They are observing the fire from the safety of a ridge.

How big did the fire get?

In researching the Only the Brave true story, we discovered that the fire grew to over 8,300 acres by July 1, 2013 and was still totally uncontrolled. The first reports of containment came the next day when it was reported to be 8 percent contained and had not grown in 24 hours. By midnight on July 3, it was reported to be 45 percent contained and wasn't spreading. It took until July 10 before it was declared 100 percent contained.

How much damage did the Yarnell Hill Fire cause?

In addition to the 19 fatalities, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office reported that 127 Yarnell buildings had been destroyed, as well as two in Peeples Valley. In total, the Yarnell Fire burned close to 8,400 acres.

Why couldn't the Granite Mountain Hotshots outrun the fire?

The winds were driving the fire toward the hotshots at a rate of a quarter mile a minute, over 12 miles an hour, making it impossible to outrun. -ABC News

Storm winds caused the Yarnell Hill Fire to spread at a speed of more than 12 miles per hour on the day of the tragedy.

Did the family members really learn of the deaths when Brendan McDonough was the only one who showed up at a school in Prescott?

No. This is fiction. Though they did gather at a school in Prescott, the family members of the firefighters had learned of the deaths and the sole survivor more randomly by way of the media or even social media. Many have since said that they were forced to grieve too publicly.

Did the investigation into the Yarnell tragedy discover negligence?

Arizona's Forestry Division conducted a three-month investigation that found no negligence in the response to the tragedy, citing that an air tanker carrying flame retardant was directly above the firefighters as they died. The only thing of concern that they discovered were issues with radio communications due to heavy radio traffic and radios that weren't programmed with proper tone guards. The result was radio transmissions that were at times broken and filled with static.

Less than three months later on December 4, 2013, the Industrial Commission of Arizona blamed the Forestry Division for the deaths based on an investigation carried out by Arizona's Division of Occupational Safety and Health. The commission argued that the firefighters should have been pulled out earlier, especially given the approaching thunderstorm, citing that state fire officials put property above the safety of the firemen. "The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it," said Marshall Krotenberg, lead investigator for ADOSH. "But there was no plan to move people out of the way." The commission also cited the investigation's findings that key fire officials were either not present or not replaced after abandoning their posts. A $559,000 fine was imposed.

As videos surfaced revealing the communication issues and mismanagement on the ground that day, 12 families of deceased Granite Mountain Hotshots sued the Arizona State Department of Forestry. -CBS Evening News

The Granite Mountain Hotshots pose for a group pyramid picture (left) prior to the tragedy. The actors (right) recreate the hotshot pyramid for the movie.

Do the family members of the firefighters feel that Only the Brave is accurate?

Not all of the family members were happy with the film. However, their main complaint wasn't that what was shown was inaccurate, but rather that the film failed to tell the whole story, specifically how other families handled the tragedy. A statement issued by the Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute, made up of three surviving relatives of Granite Mountain Hotshots, read, "Know that this movie will not answer questions about what happened that day, outside of loss," the group said. "This is a Hollywood movie. It does not show complete truth, it is just a movie."

Did the cast train with real wildland firefighters to prepare for their roles?

Yes. Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and the rest of the cast were put through firefighter boot camp. "The fact that we trained with actual Granite Mountain Hotshots I think was a major major thing," says Brolin, who plays team leader Eric Marsh in the film. "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."

Where did the title "Only the Brave" come from?

The title "Only the Brave" comes from the first words of a quotation by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian. "Only the brave enjoy noble and glorious deaths," reads the quote, which foreshadows the fates of the firefighters in the movie.

Yarnell Hill Tragedy Documentary & Related Videos

Get an up-close look at the Yarnell Hill Fire by watching the documentary below, which includes audio and video of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from the day of the tragedy.

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