Fire tragedy resonates locally

By Kelly Ducote / The Observer July 03, 2013 11:18 am

Local fire officials are shocked and saddened by the deaths of 19 members of the Prescott, Ariz., Hotshot crew.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, which continues to blaze near central Arizona, claimed the lives of the 19 men, ranging in age between 21 to 43, Sunday afternoon.

La Grande Fire Chief Bruce Weimer said he first heard the news through a fire service publication online.

“My immediate reaction was ‘It’s got to be somewhere in a poorer country,’” he said. “When I learned it was Arizona and they were Hotshots, I couldn’t believe it. I grew up in the fire service in Arizona.”

Weimer said fires can be especially fatal in poorer countries that lack equipment and training, so the number of fatalities “dumbfounded” everyone at the La Grande Fire Station.

“We’ve lost wildland firefighters locally. It makes you stop and grieve, and then also wonder what happened? The Hotshot crews are the special forces of wildland firefighting,” he said. “These guys were experienced. What didn’t they see?”

Weimer said the fire shelters deployed in the tragedy do not protect from direct flame contact. With fire season just beginning, he said, the situation really gives one pause.

“It’s just so sad,” he said.

Wallowa Lake Rural Fire Protection District President Chuck Anderson issued a statement Monday offering condolences to families who lost loved ones in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

“Wildland firefighters are trained to watch for danger, stay in communication, be aware of the weather and leave themselves an escape route,” Anderson said in the statement. “But even those precautions don’t guarantee safety because a wildland fire can be unpredictable.”

Anderson said that the loss hits home even though the fire is more than 1,000 miles away and that it serves as a reminder to volunteers who show up whenever they are needed.

“Whenever you see a firefighter, say thanks,” he said in the statement.

There is a strong sense of camaraderie, even family, among firefighters across agency lines. Hotshot crews are interagency crews made of firefighters from the Forest Service and other entities. Two such crews are based in Union County.

“This time of year we share resources,” said Matt Burks, Wallowa-Whitman Forest Service public affairs specialist. “(Hotshot crews) are not attached to a forest. They go wherever the fire is.”

Later in the fire season, when fires are more common in the Northwest, crews may be sent from the Southwest to help here.

“We’re all family … anybody who wears the yellow Nomex shirt is family,” Burks said. “When something like this happens, it makes us all step back.”