Rocky Barker: More fire deaths, more questions

After this latest tragedy, we all want to know why these 19 wildland firefighters were in harm's way.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJuly 2, 2013 

The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona was reported without emotion Monday at the daily briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Then the professional presentation moved on to the other fire reports from across the nation, masking the pain shared by firefighters here and throughout the nation.

"There's a certain melancholy in the fire community right now, sympathy, shock, sadness," said Roberta DiAmico, a National Park Service spokeswoman at NIFC. "How do we avoid these tragedies?"

Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Ariz., the first team of its kind from a city fire department, died Sunday as homeowners were escaping the fast-moving flames with just minutes to spare.

Families, friends and fellow firefighters mourned the deaths while celebrating bravery in the line of duty, men and women as noble as those responders who raced up the stairs of the World Trade Center in 2001.

The loss of 200 buildings at Yarnell, Ariz., adds to the toll, although officials say property loss does not justify placing firefighters in the path of roaring afternoon fires. A federal Type 1 fire command team - the most experienced and well-equipped the nation has - replaced the Arizona state commanders. Investigators are beginning to look at what happened.

Already firefighters are asking questions about why the Hotshots were where they were when things went bad. They are talking about the weather.

Did the firefighters know that thunderstorms were building? Were they aware that erratic, out-flowing winds - connected to such storms - could occur? Or did the 180-degree wind shift reported by authorities come out of nowhere in a way firefighters could not predict?

Did someone generate a spot weather report and were the team's leaders aware?

Was this a replay of the 2006 Devil's Den Fire incident in Utah, where short-term weather and fuel conditions contributed to a firefighter's death? The firefighter there died when his emergency fire shelter "was exceeded by intense heat and direct flame," according to the official investigation.

The 19 Arizona firefighters had deployed their shelters, officials said. But these aluminum and silica tent-like shelters are made to reflect heat and flame only briefly and provide firefighters just a short refuge for survival.

Firefighters are trained to identify a safety zone and an escape route. Did these firefighters have their safety zones? Did they have escape routes?

If they were caught and unable to reach these areas, did they have an adequate shelter deployment site - a flat, clear or burned-over area without fire fuels - on which to hunker down as the fire passed over?

More than 300 firefighters' lives have been saved by fire shelters since they were brought to the firelines in 1977.

"On many deployments in the past, firefighters have been able to find good deployment sites," said Tony Petrilli, a researcher who has worked on improving fire shelters.

These kinds of questions are uncomfortable. They were uncomfortable last year when Moscow wildland firefighter Anne Veseth was killed by a falling snag on a fire in North Idaho. She died the day after other firefighters refused to join the state crews on the Steep Corner Fire on August 11 because of unsafe conditions.

The incident commander on the Steep Corner Fire said "they have a different set of values and do things differently," reported one of the federal firefighters who left.

These questions are as uncomfortable as those raised 10 years ago this month. In 2003, Jeff Allen and Shane Heath died when they were overtaken by fire on the Cramer Fire northwest of Salmon due to poor judgments by a host of forest managers and numerous safety standard violations.

The questions are as unsettling as those that followed the death of 14 firefighters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., in 1994, including McCall smokejumper Jim Thrash.

Unfortunately, the questions are disturbingly similar in all of these fires - as well as when 13 firefighters died at Mann Gulch above the Missouri River in Montana in 1949.

Fires in the afternoons of hot summer days, when fuels are extremely dry and winds are high and erratic, are always dangerous. The leaders who put firefighters out in these conditions are entrusted to give them the information and the tools they need to protect themselves.

The question isn't whether we will forget these brave firefighters. The question is will we remember how they died and learn from it?

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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