Today is June 30, the second anniversary of the deaths of 19 firefighters in a place called Yarnell Hill near Prescott, Arizona. The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew was overrun by wildfire while they were on duty attempting to contain the fire and prevent damages to homes in nearby communities. An anniversary article this weekend quotes a local resident whose home was destroyed: "I still feel a lot of shame and guilt because 19 firefighters died trying to save my town; I'm not sure what to do with that."
Firefighter fatalities, especially multiple deaths in a single incident, shock and dismay us, but unfortunately occur with regularity. In 10 of the past 15 years, there has been at least one wildland fire that has claimed the lives of two or more firefighters, resulting in 93 deaths over that period. When, as the Yarnell Hill resident realized, we make the connection between firefighter safety and the safety of our homes and communities, we may feel guilt, shame and confusion as she did. Yet there is something each of us can do to live less dangerously from wildfire - even those who willingly put themselves in harm's way to protect the life and property of others.
For firefighters and their leaders, safe practices are built into the incident command system, NWCG training,and NFPA codes and standards. Use of sound safety standards, continuous training, and good leadership can all help firefighters to be safer on the fire ground as well as in going to and returning from a call. As individuals, firefighters can do many things to reduce their likelihood of being injured or killed when on duty, including taking care of their physical health (37 firefighters died on average each year over the past 15 years from sudden cardiac death while on duty).
With regard to fire ground deaths, reports from such devastating events as the Dude Fire in Arizona in 1990, the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado in 1994, and the 1966 Loop Fire near Los Angeles recount tragic losses that involved multiple victims and captured headlines. The official reports and anniversary blogs outline lessons that every firefighter should learn and act upon.
And what about the rest of us? If we live in an area prone to wildfires, there are many things we can do to be safer and to help firefighters operate more safely. To protect structures during a wildfire event, homeowners can take preventive steps to reduce the likelihood of ignition by clearing away flammable debris and vegetation, cleaning up decks, porches, gutters and roofs, and keeping large fuel packets away from the home, such as woodpiles. To even make it possible for firefighters to defend homes, property owners need to give their houses care and attention to be as ignition-resistant as possible.
For the firefighters reading this blog, view NFPA's video on firefighter safety in the wildland/urban interface for more important ways you can keep yourself and your crew safe while doing your job.
Top photo: Wildland firefighter statue outside the memorial service for the Granite Mountain Hotshots in Prescott, July 9, 2013, Photo by Bill Gabbert, post at WildfireToday.com