Former Granite Mountain Hotshot plays best friend in movie about Yarnell Hill Fire

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Brandon Bunch might have been with the Granite Mountain Hotshots that fateful June day more than four years ago, but just two weeks earlier, he left the hotshots to tend to his pregnant wife and their family. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 and Black Label Media) Brandon Bunch might have been with the Granite Mountain Hotshots that fateful June day more than four years ago, but just two weeks earlier, he left the hotshots to tend to his pregnant wife and their family. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 and Black Label Media)
'Only the Brave,' a movie based on the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew that was killed battling the 2013 Yarnell Hill wildfire, opens Friday. (Source: Sony Pictures) 'Only the Brave,' a movie based on the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew that was killed battling the 2013 Yarnell Hill wildfire, opens Friday. (Source: Sony Pictures)
Brandon Bunch and Scott Fox on the set of 'Only the Brave' (Source: Black Label Media and Sony Pictures) Brandon Bunch and Scott Fox on the set of 'Only the Brave' (Source: Black Label Media and Sony Pictures)
The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident of any kind for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 file photo) The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident of any kind for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5 file photo)
Today Bunch is a tree climber. 'It’s like the closest thing to hotshotting I can get to without being gone ...,' he said. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Today Bunch is a tree climber. 'It’s like the closest thing to hotshotting I can get to without being gone ...,' he said. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Brandon Bunch lost 19 of his friends in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

“I was on the crew that season,” he explained when I visited him on the set of “Only the Brave” last year. “So, I knew all the guys really well -- all of them.”

Bunch might have been with the Granite Mountain Hotshots that fateful June day more than four years ago, but just two weeks earlier, he left the hotshots to tend to his pregnant wife and their family. She was about to give birth to their third son. The Bunch boys are now 7, 5 and 4.

“They know all my friends died fightin’ fire, and they’re in heaven,” he said. “June 30 is my oldest’s birthday, so I got the call on his birthday.”

[SLIDESHOW: The Granite Mountain Hotshots]

Bunch was not all that thrilled when he heard that there was going to be a movie about the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

“I wasn’t on board at all,” he explained when I chatted with him while the movie was being shot. “Yeah, I told them no a few times.”

He’s not the only one.

Pat McCarty, a former hotshot and now Prescott firefighter, also said no originally. But he is the one who got Bunch on board.

“They’re going to make the movie with or without us,” Bunch said McCarty told him. “If we’re there, we can make it a little better and a little closer [to what happened].”

[RELATED: 'Only the Brave' trailer released about Granite Mountain Hotshots, Yarnell Hill wildfire]

“Everyone wants to do a really good job of telling the story,” he continued. “Everyone really cares, which made me feel a lot better.”

Bunch said it was hard watching actors play his friends, and admits it’s surreal to see Hollywood actors – Josh Brolin, Thad Luckinbill, Miles Teller and Ben Hardy, to name a few -- play his buddies.

[WATCH: Josh Brolin, James Badge Dale talk about movie during Arizona premiere]

[WATCH: "Only the Brave" trailer]

[LOOK: Movie poster]

“Ben Hardy looks pretty close to Wade [Parker],” Bunch said. “Wade was my saw partner for two years. … Besides his British accent, he’s close.”

Bunch said Hardy got in there and was working hard, doing what a wildland firefighter would, when they filmed together.

“It’s weird seeing [the actors] from like a distance,” he said. “It looks like a crew. Everyone looks a little similar. So yeah, it’s trippy.”

“There are good days and bad days,” he said of the filming. But it helped that the cast and crew wanted to “do all the guys justice, which gives me peace of mind.”

[RELATED: Arizona remembers deadly Yarnell Hill Fire as Goodwin Fire burns]

[ORIGINAL STORY: 19 firefighters dead in Yarnell wildfire]

The movie chronicles a tragic event, but that doesn’t mean the cast and crew didn’t have a good time making it.

“That’s kind of what a hotshot crew is about, too,” Bunch said. “In your downtime, you’re doing, you know, something fun. It’s been good to get around a big group of guys again. … It’s hard not to have fun.”

While McCarty was a technical adviser on the production, Bunch plays Garret Zuppiger.

“I’m just kind of hangin’ out on screen,” he said. “Pat is the guy behind the scenes, going through the script, making sure everything’s dialed in.”

[WATCH: Exclusive behind-the-scenes look at 'Only the Brave']

Bunch is not in the movie much, but he does have one line.

“I ask for a chew and then I take a chew,” he said. “My mom’s gonna be super proud.”

There is one other front-and-center scene for Bunch.

“I open a beer with the chainsaw,” he said. “So, I’ve got two big moments in the movie and yeah, my mom’s not gonna like either one of them.”

A year after we caught up with him on the set of “Only the Brave,” Bunch is still using chainsaws. He spends his time outdoors, clearing hazards and keeping things safe -- things he would do with his friends as a hotshot.

“I’m a tree climber,” he explained. “We remove trees in tight areas. … When you can’t cut trees from the ground, you have to climb them and piece ‘em out. … It’s like the closest thing to hotshotting I can get to without being gone, so it’s kind of right up my alley.”

Bunch’s boss is also a former Granite Mountain Hotshot and knew the men who died. The two got to see the film privately several weeks ago at the Harkins in Prescott.

“They had like a private family viewing,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous. I just didn’t really know what to expect.”

He said the filmmakers did a nice job capturing the essence of his friends, but it wasn’t easy to sit through.

“The whole thing was kind of hard to watch,” he said. “I’m glad they made the movie and I feel like they did a pretty good job.”

Bilge Ebiri of the Village Voice loved the film.

“’Only the Brave’ is a visually splendid, spellbinding, and surreal movie that also happens to be an emotionally shattering, over-the-top ugly-cry for the ages.”

William Bibbiani of IGN described “Only the Brave” as “a straightforward celebration of these heroes’ lives ….”

"The Yarnell fire was one of the most tragic events in Arizona history," Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the fire. "Nineteen courageous firefighters sprinted toward danger in order to keep their fellow Arizonans out of harm’s way, and no words will ever be enough to express our gratitude for their service to our state."

[MORE: Granite Mountain Hotshots remembered at Hall of Flame in Phoenix ]

I asked Bunch if his sons know much about the movie and what inspired it.

Garret Zuppiger“My youngest will talk about Garrett [Zuppiger], who I played in the movie,” Bunch said. “He was my best friend. So, Garrett used to come to our house and eat breakfast with us and stuff. And my kids loved him. So, yeah, my youngest talks about him all the time.”

A graduate of Greenway High School and then the University of Arizona, Zuppiger was 27 years old.

One day the Bunch boys will get to see their father playing that man they loved.

Only one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots -- the lookout -- survived. In a book released last year around the anniversary of the fire, Brendan McDonough, played by Teller in the movie, wrote about the survivor’s guilt and anxiety he had dealt with since that day.

[RELATED: Yarnell Hill Fire survivor: ‘It’s a tough life to live’]

memorial park and hiking trail were dedicated to the fallen firefighters last November.

“May this always be a sacred place for this community and for this state to honor the lives of those who died protecting us," Gov. Doug Ducey said during the somber dedication ceremony. "And may it always serve as a testament to the danger firefighters everywhere face every day. We will never forget."

[READ MORE: Park, trail dedicated to 19 fallen Arizona firefighters]

Rated PG-13, “Only the Brave” opens Friday. It was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is known for 2010’s “Tron: Legacy” and 2013’s “Oblivion,” and, according to IMBD, it’s rumored that he’ll direct “Top Gun: Maverick,” which is due out in 2019.

In conjunction with the release of “Only the Brave,” 3TV is airing a special retrospective about the Yarnell Hill Fire and the Granite Mountain Hotshots Friday at 6:30 p.m.


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