This week the state of Arizona and wildland firefighting personnel throughout the country mourned in the wake of the worst wildfire tragedy in more than 80 years.
On Sunday the Yarnell Hills fire claimed the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a 20-member crew based in Prescott, Ariz. The lone survivor was moving the unit’s fire engine when the rest of his team was overwhelmed by the blaze.
On Tuesday, members of Summit County’s firefighting community joined the rest of the nation in remembering the lives lost Sunday in Arizona.
Jeff Berino, deputy chief of Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue, has been fighting wildfires since the 1970s. He is currently federally certified as a Type 3 wildfire incident commander.
Despite the distance from home, Berino said the tragedy in Arizona is affecting the local firefighting community.
“You work with these folks on fires, you get to know them and I know meeting their end this way is not a pleasant way to go,” Berino said. “Firefighters are like family and it devastated a lot of us locally.”
According to a report by The Associated Press, the 19 firefighters were found beneath their one-man emergency shelters, which are shell-like structures made of heat-resistant fabric that are deployed only in the most desperate survival scenarios. It also was reported that there was a sudden shift in the direction and intensity of the wind at the time of the tragedy, causing the 200-acre fire to grow to more than 2,000 acres in a matter of hours.
According to a preliminary investigation of the tragedy, fire officials said Monday the sudden change in winds caused the fire to split in two directions. Just as suddenly the fire collapsed on itself, trapping the Granite Mountain Hotshots without an escape route.
In his more than 40 years fighting wildfires, Berino has seen numerous advancements in equipment and technology, but he said there has been no greater improvement than in the dedication to firefighter safety.
Hotshots carry documents known as Red Cards that outline their individual qualifications. Although there are numerous levels of certification, each and every wildland firefighter is trained, and then annually retrained, in a safety protocol known as LCES, Berino said.
Before deploying on a fire line wildfire crews must first designate a Lookout, set up a base of Communications and identify an Escape route and Safety zone, Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Lipsher added.
Although preliminary investigations have not revealed whether the Granite Mountain Hotshots suffered from a breakdown in safety protocol, Lipsher doesn’t think that would be the case.
“Safety is a priority during every fire and for every firefighter who goes out on the line,” Lipsher said. “But, fighting wildfires is such an unpredictable thing that anything can happen even with LCES in place.”
The wildcard, Berino added, is Mother Nature.
Although neither he nor any firefighters under his command have ever had to deploy their safety shelters, Berino said he’s had some close calls in the past.
On one occasion he was working with a crew that was nearly flanked by a fire. He and his crew had to follow an escape route to a designated safety zone.
“We can train and we can train and we can train, and we all do, but we’re dealing with Mother Nature and there is an intrinsic risk there,” Berino said. “When you’re forced to fall back to a safety zone the adrenaline is pumping and you’re still exposed to heat and smoke, so it’s not a pleasant place, but it’s safe.”
As of Monday night, 10 hotshot crews were assigned to the Yarnell Hills fire. Crews had not yet reached any level of containment, according to reports.
The blaze, which was ignited sometime Friday afternoon by a lightning strike, is estimated at more than 8,400 acres. It has already destroyed more than 200 structures in and around the mountain town of Yarnell, Ariz., located about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.