In Prescott, AZ, Eric Marsh is trying to get a municipal (town-based rather then agency-based) crew of wildland firefighters certified as a Type 1, or interagency "Hot Shot", crew. To do this requires a grueling training regimen followed by certification by a federal official, which is done on the front line against a real fire.
After receiving their certification (after quite a few bumps in the road) they go on to successfully battle several fires, culminating in a fire not far from home in Yarnell, AZ that suddenly takes a deadly turn and puts their skills to the ultimate test.
This film has examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation: By necessity a lot of the story and several of the fires the Granite Mountain crew fights are left out before the fateful Yarnell fire. After their deaths, there also was a massive fight over survivor benefits with the town of Prescott, which denied them to the widows for years. They also used some breathtakingly nasty tactics, such as telling the town their taxes would have to go up specifically because of the widows and letting the townspeople drive some of them out of town. They finally lost a series of very public court battles over it and were forced to divulge the benefits. The movie simply skips over all this to a 'three years later' epilogue, making it seem like the town was still grateful and supportive to the fallen firefighters.
- Likewise, the movie skips over the finger pointing in the aftermath of the fire, in which a state watchdog organization eventually found the Arizona state Forestry Division (in charge of the Yarnell fire) more focused on protecting property over the lives of the firefighters, which ultimately resulted in a hefty fine being leveled against the organization. The movie itself definitely shows some of the dysfunction and mismanagement, but stops short of laying blame on anyone.
- Alternative Foreign Theme Song: The theme song for the Japanese release of the film is "My Star" by EXILE.
- Bears Are Bad News: Certainly ones made of fire, representing the danger wildfires bring. This comes from Eric's memory of one of his earliest fires, an entire forest goes up in flames and out runs a grizzly bear on fire. It bulls right past the crew and disappears into the bush. He says he'd never seen anything so beautiful or so terrifying.
- Cassandra Truth: Eric, despite being a Type 2 (part-time) firefighter, has a very strong feel for how to properly fight a given wildfire. When their Type 1 evaluation comes, he actually shouts down the evaluator and insists on fighting the fire HIS way. It works and saves the town they were protecting. When the evaluation comes, the evaluator writes that the supervisor was a 'cocky son of a bitch' but that the crew was the best he'd ever seen...better than the professional hotshot crews. They get their Type 1 (inter-agency professional) designation and become a Hot Shot crew.
- Chekhov's Gun: The air tankers. They are never where you want them to be or always dropping on exactly the wrong place. In the Yarnell fire, one drops right on their backfire, extinguishing it and forcing them to move up the ridge which kills them when the fire overruns them. The true tragedy, bordering on Diabolus ex Machina, is that an air tanker was RIGHT overhead as they were being overrun - and didn't drop because radio communications were too crowded, and the tanker failed to get the crew's mayday calls. If it had dropped on them, they likely would have survived. That last part wasn't added for drama; that actually happened in real life.
- The fire shelters and the deployment drills of them come up a lot in the first act of the film, as the crew works to get their Type 1 certification, before they actually have to use them at the end of the film, where, tragically, they failed to protect the crew.
- The Determinator: Brendan is tired to the point of being sick, but he completes the run up to the ridge and back to the station with a picture to prove it. Eric lets him stay on though he has to put up with taunts and jeers from the others for some time after that.
- Developing Doomed Characters: You get to know a lot of the crew pretty well before the final fire at Yarnell, where they all die save for one (see Sole Survivor below).
- Fire-Forged Friends: Literally. They go from a team to being brothers through facing deadly wildfires head on.
- Foregone Conclusion: The fate of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was pretty well-known even before the film came out.
- Foreshadowing: The burning bear is seen repeatedly before actually being described by Eric in the final act of the film, including in a dream right before they dispatch to Yarnell.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Though you see the burnover at the deployment site and the charred remains of their tools and fire shelters, you neither have to watch the firefighters burn in their shelters, nor see their own charred remains when the rescue teams arrive at the site and confirm their deaths; even the broad scene of their shelters are out of focus as the camera pans selectively over the site to focus on their gear and showing a few close ups of the burnt shelters.
- Happily Married: Eric and Amanda, though the strain of his job and the way it keeps them apart is starting to get to her.
- Heroic BSoD: Brendan suffers a massive one when he finds out the rest of the crew was killed just outside Yarnell.
- Instantly Proven Wrong: When Brendan comes to apply for a position, he's told by guys who don't want him there there aren't any slots open. Then Eric comes out and asks if he wants to interview for an open slot.
- Jerkass: The Hotshot crew lead early in the film is very dismissive of Eric's suggestions to save a community threatened by fire, telling them to stay out of the way and let the professionals work. Eric turns out to have been right, and the town goes up in smoke.
- Manly Tears: After he finds out the Granite Mountain crew all died (save one) in the Yarnell fire, the fire chief breaks down into a sobbing heap.
- Match Cut: An overhead shot of the fire bear running through a burning forest cuts to the crew picking their way through the black.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Though he seems dubious about the feasibility of basing a Hotshot crew in their town, the mayor gives them the time they need to prove themselves and get certified.
- Eric himself as the crew's supervisor can be hard on them but makes sure to praise them too. When they do their certification and Eric yells at the supervisor, he's remorseful about having jeopardized his crew's chances at earning their certification and blames himself. later in the film, when he tears into Brendan for wanting to switch off wildfires, he makes sure to apologize the next morning and promises to help Brendan as much as he can.
- Recovered Addict: Brendan is a former pothead, but he's trying to stay clean and get a steady job so he can be a good father for his infant daughter. Eric and Amanda are both former addicts as well. Eric tears into Brendan for trying to get out and tells him that he'll just relapse without the passion that being a hotshot brings, but Amanda points out that it applies to him more than Brendan.
- Retirony: As they're heading to Yarnell, Eric tells Jesse this will be his last fire season. Then he's one of those killed in the fire.
- Sole Survivor: Brendan is the only one not present when the Granite Mountain crew is engulfed in the Yarnell Fire.
- Survivor's Guilt: Brendan has a horrible case of it and it's hard to blame him.
- Tempting Fate: As part of Retirony, this fateful conversation:Amanda: What's up?Eric: Oh, a skunkernote down in Yarnell. It's no big deal.Amanda: I love you Short Stop.Eric: You too, Sugar Tits. Go back to sleep. I'll probably be home for dinner.It's the last time she sees him alive.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Mostly averted; a little drama is added but for the most part, the story is exactly as it took place in real life, though see Adaptation Distillation above for how events took a very nasty turn after the Yarnell fire. One of the only real differences is that in the real world, not all the burned bodies of the firemen were found in fire shelters, and to this day it is not known why as they were all deployed.