Updated: Mar 6
McDowell Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Through the smoke and dense brush, surrounded on all sides by flames licking the sky, a figure appeared like something out of Rambo. In the chopper high above, 3TV commentator Bruce Haffner is gobsmacked. “This gives new meaning to ‘burning man’,” he laughs. The feed is live all across the Phoenix area. Morning meteorologist, Ian Schwartz, is in studio. "I've never seen that I think in 15 years of doing this."
Out of a wall of fire, the runner appeared again, but he wasn't trying to escape; he was trying to stop the fire from jumping the trail. Stomping and digging with his shoes, he was doing his best to form a firebreak. He hurled stones and kicked away brush. “I'm just curious about how this ends," says Schwartz, staying with the shot. "I don't think this man is going to perish or anything... I just don't think he's going to get the job done.”
In the news chopper, Haffner jokes some more, “must be a hot round he’s got going out there. Could be looking for his golf ball.” Ironically, the man battling the wildfire below was actually professional golfer Trevor Murphy, 35, of Scottsdale. But Murphy wasn't looking for a lost Titleist in the desert, and he wasn't looking for the ensuing debate on social media as to his wits.
The attacks were swift: he shouldn't be out there, is he nuts? he could have been hurt by planes dropping water, etc... But, that would be missing the larger point and one I don't believe Murphy consciously intended; in a time when so much is out of control and most of us are just bystanders to the flames of our country, our democracy, our health, someone has to step up and take action.
Murphy is no stranger to adversity. A competitive skier from Vermont, he went up against future Olympians in high school. Switching to golf, he made the PGA Tour in 2008 and has recorded five top ten finishes on various tours. At the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Murphy birdied holes 16-18 on Friday to slide into a tie for 12th heading into the weekend, where he was paired with Dustin Johnson. Murphy was unfazed by playing with Johnson, currently the world's #1 Golfer; he had done it all through college. Murphy played for UNC and Johnson for Coastal Carolina University just outside of Myrtle Beach. “I was fresh out of college, not jaded, and just kind of young and stupid," he told a reporter. He regrets the birdies, however. “If I would have just parred one, I could have been paired with Tiger.”
During the lockdown, he's dropped his 6-soda-a-day habit and taken up ultrarunning. He was training for his second ultramarathon and first 100-miler, the Javelina Jundred in October. He was barely two miles into his morning run when he first saw the flames, and for the next two hours he would single-handedly do battle with the elements.
This summer, California has battled two of the three largest wildfires in its history. Colorado has seen record fires, and Arizona has had 13 fires burn more than 1,000 acres, two of them destroying more than 100,000 acres. Eighty homes had to be evacuated from Catalina during the Bighorn fire, which burned for over a month, and at the end of August, there were seven active wildfires in Arizona, damaging over 60,000 acres of land.
Many are quick to warn not to do what Murphy did. "Don't do this at home," said weatherman Schwartz, and, "I think he's going to need a new pair of shoes." What they failed to mention was that before Murphy took it upon himself to form a firebreak, he phoned the police and the fire department. To his amazement, they knew about the fire; it was just that they had so much on their plate, already that they were just keeping an eye on it. On the practical side of the coin, no one is advocating launching yourself into wildfires with shorts and sneakers. On the other side of that token, there is man vs. a shifting, out of control and dangerous environment. We do what we can.
With the soles of his Hoka sneakers melted, his hair singed, his iPhone broken on a rock, and a parking ticket to boot, Trevor Murphy isn't sure it was worth it. But with so much going wrong in the world, Murphy had just had enough of bad news. "I was determined to do what I could. I don’t know what kicked in, I just wanted to put it out.”