I just got done doing an agency Operational Pause in Remembrance (a moment of reflection and prayer) to honor the 19 wildland firefighters that died in Arizona recently. It is a sobering reminder to all emergency personnel that what they do is inherently dangerous, and there is the risk that they may not make it back home to their families. And yet, the good Lord has put it in their heart to, despite that risk, protect people and homes, to move towards the danger instead of instinctively running away from it. All of you know a firefighter, a police officer, an EMT, or some other emergency worker. Let me encourage you to look them in the eye and thank them for their service to the community.
There was a combination of things that caused the tragedy in Arizona. The chaparral brush and grass fuel type they were in is notorious for burning very hot and fast. Combine that with extended drought, record high temperatures and low humidity, and the stage was set for radical fire behavior. Under such conditions firefighters depend heavily on weather predictions to know when to fight and when to back off. Unfortunately, an unpredicted strong wind event caused the fire to rapidly overrun the hotshot crew with high intensity. The very last and desperate line of defense for a wildland firefighter when they are about to be burned over is a fire shelter they carry with them. It’s basically a large aluminum foil bag you enter in the hopes it will protect you from the intense heat. The crew did deploy their shelters, but it just wasn’t enough. What usually kills in a shelter is breathing the super-hot gases produced by the fire.
We don’t have the dangerous fuels like they have out west, but local wildlfire can still kill. Our mountainous terrain causes fire to run rapidly up slopes, especially up hollows that act like a chimney to push fire incredibly fast and with high intensity. Standing dead trees that can burn and fall is another danger, as is equipment accidents.
The only defense against this dangerous work it is a lot of training to learn how to avoid the risks or respond to them properly and survive. Personal protective equipment (referred to as “turn out gear” or line gear) is also critical, and you’ve seen the iconic heavy coat and helmet of a structural firefighter. They even have to take their own air supply as they enter a burning building. Let that sink in…they go into burning buildings full of blinding smoke. And the wildland firefighter puts on his yellow fire resistant shirt and helmet and walks into a mountain that’s on fire.
So thank those men and women who are all working hard and taking risks to protect us, and remember those that have fallen in the line of duty. One way to honor them is to be more careful on the road, in our homes, and in the woods to prevent fires or other incidents that require their risk taking.