Las Vegas, N.M. – The environmental health and safety director at New Mexico Highlands University is the safety and technical adviser for an upcoming movie about firefighters killed in a wildland fire.
For Brian Henington, his work on the film hit close to home.
In June 2013, Henington’s wildland fire crew relieved the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots crew at the Thompson Ridge Fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Two weeks later on June 30, 2013, 19 of the 20 hotshots perished when fierce winds gusted on a mountain wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, creating a towering wall of flames that trapped them.
In October 2017, Columbia Pictures will release Only the Brave: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who were based in Prescott, Arizona. The film stars Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, and Jennifer Connelly. It was shot in the Santa Fe and Los Alamos area, and also includes a scene from the Historic Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas.
“I vividly remember seeing the Granite Mountain crew buggies as they were leaving and thinking they looked similar to my New Mexico State Forestry crew’s trucks,” Henington said. “We didn’t get the chance to meet the hotshots, but we saw their good work. There’s a concept called slopover when a wildfire escapes the control line. Firefighting is very visual, and you can see the quality of the crew by the fire lines they construct. The Granite Mountain crew built the ideal fire line at Thompson Ridge in the Valles Calderas Wilderness because it held. We took over where they left off.”
Henington’s elite crew, named New Mexico Returning Heroes because it was created to provide work for U.S. military veterans, was fighting a fire in San Ysidro when they heard about the Granite Mountain hotshot fatalities.
“My heart sank, and I craved more information about what happened. I felt a wall of sudden depression and also anger because you get tired of hearing about firefighters dying. As a leader, I had to focus my crew to ensure our safety in a dangerous fire environment. It’s tough. I told them, ‘We’ll talk about this when we get off shift,’ so that as a team we could deal with people’s emotions,” said Henington, whose crew told him wildland firefighting reminded them of being in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Henington starting working at Highlands University in May 2017. In April 2016, Black Label Media hired him to train production staff and actors on fire safety, fire behavior, and technical aspects of wildland fire for Only the Brave. They also used his 2015 textbook, Introduction to Wildland Firefighting, as a guide for department heads working on the film.
“My job was to make sure that everyone went home safely after a day on the set, and I was 100 percent focused on this huge responsibility. But the more I worked on the movie, the more I felt a sense of commitment to help the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ story be portrayed accurately because of their ultimate sacrifice,” said Henington, a Las Cruces, New Mexico native and 23-year veteran of wildland firefighting in the Western United States.
Henington, who is relieved to say he never lost a crew member under his command, said that wildland firefighters have to push through fear and physical exhaustion every day during the typical assignment of 14 consecutive days.
“As a crew leader, your job is to have the 20 that went in with you all return. I think it’s important that blame not be placed in the Granite Mountain Hotshots tragedy. We still don’t know exactly what happened on Yarnell Hill that day,” Henington said.
He said when the call comes in for a fire, there’s a big adrenaline rush.
“When you arrive at the site, the first thing you feel is the steepness of the mountain, and then the heat and power of the fire. A high-intensity fire also has a unique sound like a locomotive and there’s raw beauty in the flames. With my training, I’m sharply focused on the fire environment and strategy needed to fight it safely,” Henington said.
He said one big takeaway for Only The Brave audiences will be the tightknit nature of wildland firefighting crews.
“The saying about being your brother’s keeper applies. You have to count on the person next to you to pull you out if you get in trouble,” Henington said. “Movie goers will also experience the most realistic wildland firefighting movie to date that shows actual fire behavior and the tactics we use to suppress it.”
Henington said being back at Highlands is like returning home. He first came to the university on a football scholarship in 1992, playing as the Cowboy’s starting quarterback for four years.
He earned a B.A. in political science and criminology at Highlands in 1996, going on to complete an MBA and a master’s degree in public affairs at the university.
“I really care about Highlands. I also feel a commitment to give back to the university where I had fantastic professors who became lifelong mentors, shaping my professional career. In a nutshell, my job at Highlands is to find hazards and mitigate them. This ranges from fire prevention to education,” said Henington, who taught fire science at Central New Mexico Community College for 16 years.