July 9, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

A memorial service honoring the 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill, AZ wildfire will be held today at Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, AZ.  Forty eight hours earlier, an honor guard escorted 19 hearses carrying members of the 20-person Granite Mountain Hotshots on a 125-mile route from Phoenix to Prescott.  This string of somber ceremonies started Monday, July 1 when a crew of 12 firefighters were permitted on the mountain to remove the firefighters’ bodies.

In “It’s something you never want to see again,”  The (Arizona) Republic’s Kristina Goetz describes a brotherhood of firefighters honoring their own.

“’Anytime there’s a tragedy, a fatal tragedy, it’s tradition that,’” [Prescott firefighter] Conrad Jackson said, his voice breaking, ‘your own family comes and gets you.  I don’t want strangers going in and getting them out of there.  I want to be the one that gets to go in there and get them out of there. It’s a horrific honor to go in and do that.’”

Goetz describes the solemn scene:

“After the burnover, a bulldozer had plowed a path half a mile up the hillside, the fresh desert earth stark against the blackened hill.  On Monday morning, that track led the three pickups to within about 30 feet of the fire crew.  The recovery crew, still in their yellow fire gear and hard hats, emerged from the trucks and approached the scene.  Some walked up to each man to say a silent prayer — or goodbye.

…Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief Darrell Willis called the 12 together in a circle.  They listened as he recited the 23rd Psalm.  …Two firefighters walked up to the body bags and unfurled American flags that had been brought to the scene.  …Then, eight firefighters, four on either side, stood in salute at the back of each truck as the other four men carried their bodies.

“’It’s not something you practice,’ Jackson said. ‘It’s definitely not something you ever want to have to do.'”

The recovery team saw the tools the Hotshots were using to dig a fireline—axes with spade heads—along with water bottles and burned chainsaws.  One team member told Goetz the land looked like it had been “nuked.”

I’ve been thinking about the wisdom of trying to fight a massive fire that is called “wild.”   Wildfires by definition are fast moving with unpredictable behavior.   Should firefighters be dispatched to battle such blazes?

Crystal Kolden, PhD, a fire ecologist at the University of Idaho says no, and thinks the Granite Mountain Hotshots should never have been directed to do so.  Kolden is a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter.  In a Washington Post article, “Arizona fire deaths prove no one should die for a house,” Kolden explains that the town of Yarnell had already been evacuated.  The firefighters died trying to save houses, not lives.  She writes:

“Homeowners who live in wildfire-prone areas shouldn’t expect their highly flammable property to be rescued during extreme fires.   …In parts of the country prone to earthquakes and flooding, owners and developers must purchase expensive hazard insurance.  New construction often must meet specialized codes designed to mitigate potential catastrophe, such as requirements that homes in coastal areas be built on stilts.”

“Yet, for those who face wildfire, mitigation measures such as building with burn-resistant materials and clearing nearby vegetation are usually optional, making it nearly impossible for firefighters to safely defend communities. Meanwhile, since the federal government picks up most of the tab for firefighting, there’s not much incentive for state and local agencies to regulate development.”

“This needs to change. We need to stop seeing wildfire as an enemy to be exterminated forever and instead accept it as inevitable. We need to recognize that communities built without wildfire-mitigation measures are tinderboxes waiting to burn and stop incentivizing homeowners to rebuild with kindling.”

Kolden explains what fire ecologists have learned over the past century and what climate change will bring.  She notes:

“…we can make forests healthier and reduce future risk by allowing some remote wildfires to burn. We can also improve forests and clear flammable vegetation around communities using thinning and prescribed burning, reducing the chance that fires will make the leap from wildlands to homes.”

“Most important, however, we’ve learned how powerless we truly are when it comes to wildfires. Despite impressive technological advances in firefighting, we are still at the mercy of weather, such as thunderstorms and lightning strike that brought tragedy to Yarnell. Firefighters with decades of experience tell me that they have never seen fire behavior as extreme as what they are seeing now. We simply cannot stop high-intensity, wind-driven wildfires, and we need to quit asking firefighters to place themselves in harm’s way.”

An investigation into the disaster is being led by Florida State Forester Jim Karels.  Its purpose is to understand the circumstances leading up to the disaster and identify ways “to possibly prevent such a terrible loss in the future.”   I’ll be eager to read the investigation team’s report when it is released.  I hope they highlight the upstream factors identified by Crystal Kolden, such as zoning and building codes, as essential ways to keep firefighters out of harm’s way.

The obituaries for Andrew Ashcraft, 29, Robert Caldwell, 23, Travis Carter, 31, Dustin Deford, 24, Chris MacKenzie, 30, Eric Marsh, 43, Grant McKee, 21, Sean Misner, 26, Scott Norris, 28, Wade Parker, 22, John Percin, 24, Anthony Rose, 23, Jesse Steed, 36, Joe Thurston, 32, William Warneke, 25, Travis Turbyfill, 27, Clayton Whitted, 28, Kevin Woyjeck, 21, Garrett Zuppiger, 27, are available here.   May they rest in peace.

3 thoughts on “Ceremonies honor the 19 fallen firefighters, wisdom of battling wildfires questioned

  1. Back in the 90s, I worked with Eric Marsh on ski patrol.

    I can’t see sending him and 19 others in to risk their lives trying to save structures when the structure’s owners don’t even value them enough to clear fuel from around them. I’ve done that — back in 2005 I cleared the ladder fuel on the acre around my mother’s place in the mountains with a friend (a small woman, like me in her 50s.) It took a day and a half to not only cut the dog hair but reduce it to either firewood or sawdust for composting.

    Meanwhile all over Arizona I see places where houses are invisible from 50 meters away thanks to thick undergrowth. If people don’t care enough to spend a weekend on protecting their property, it isn’t worth the lives of people like Eric to save it.

  2. The historic mistakes made in wild lads management have largely been made in an attempt to support private enterprise. The tendency to want to put out all fires going back to the 1900s was undertaken to keep lumber operation profitable. Trees were a valuable resource and letting them burn was seen as a massive loss of profits. So public money was spent to keep the lumber industry happy.

    This was the age of Smokey the Bear and every fire being fought. Which. ironically, allowed the unburned fuels to remain and the forests to become more flammable, dangerous to firefighting crews, and vulnerable to fire.

    Of course now the commercial interests are different. Now it is real estate people, developers, and home builders who demand public money be spent to keep their market viable. And the risk has never been greater for crews. Ecosystems that historically burned every few years are now decades behind and stacked with unburned fuel.

    IMHO what needs to be done is to slowly, and incrementally, withdrawal fire protection from developments too far away from towns and too far into the forests. If the homeowners or developers want their land protected from fire they can pay for private crews and restructure their developments and buildings to be more fire resistant.

    Relieved of any need to travel deep into the woods fire crews can better chose their ground and will have access to water, paved roads, and easy escape routes. The job would get a lot easier, and safer.

    I simply don’t care that this might inconvenience developers and interfere with their desires to make big money selling the dream of a house in the woods. I also feel little sympathy for people who spend money top buy into this pipe dream.

    Take a lesson from old timers who had a cabin on the beach or deep in the wilderness. They built those cabins to be expendable because they knew that storms or fires would destroy them.

  3. in this day and age there has to be a more modern way of fighting these fires.making fire breaks by ax and spade should end with that fire.

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