Updated: Jul 5
McDowell Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Through smoke and fingers of flame licking at the sky, a figure appears out of the brush like 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 entire the Phoenix area. Morning meteorologist, Ian Schwartz, is in studio. "I've never seen that I think in 15 years of doing this."
The runner disappeares into the wall of fire, then comes out again and with purpose. It was then that it dawned on Haffner and Schewartz: Not only was he not trying to escape, he was performing a series of ninja moves in an attempt to keep the fire from jumping the trail. Stomping and digging with his shoes, he was forming a firebreak. He hurled stones and kicked away brush. “I'm just curious about how this ends," said Schwartz as he informed his cameraman to stay 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 took a jab, “must be a hot round he’s got going out there. Could be looking for his golf ball.” Little did he know, the wildman below was actually professional golfer Trevor Murphy, 35, of Scottsdale. But Murphy wasn't searching 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.
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.
And Murphy is no stranger to adversity. A competitive skier from Vermont, he battled future Olympians in high school to keep his spot on the team. He made the PGA Tour in 2008 but failed to win. He has, however, 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.”
But it was during the lockdown, that he dropped his 6-soda-a-day habit and took up ultrarunning. He was barely two miles into his morning run when he first saw the flames, and for the next two hours he single-handedly battled the elements.
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.
This summer, California battled two of the three largest wildfires in its history. Colorado saw record fires, and Arizona had 13 fires burn more than 1,000 acres, two of them destroying more than 100,000. 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.
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.”