They are the special operations forces of the firefighting world, the elite, the best of the best, the bravest of the brave, the baddest of the bad. Interagency Hot Shot crews go where no one else can, to hell on earth, to stand between human life and the unreasoning destruction of wildfire.
On Sunday, 19 members of a hotshot crew of 20 perished when a ravenous fire shifted directions and trapped them near Yarnell, Ariz.
It will be some time before forensic specialists can study the area and talk to the survivors to determine what went wrong. For now, authorities say only that the 20-member crew of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group based in Prescott, Ariz., was following safety protocols but appears to have been overwhelmed when the fire changed course, according to The Associated Press. The unit’s lone survivor may have been moving the team’s truck when the rest were overcome.
A meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Flagstaff office said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind at about the time of the disaster. The blow-up grew the fire from 200 acres to 2,000 in a matter of hours, according to the AP.
While there is much we don’t know about what happened Sunday, the things we do know remind us of the July 6, 1994, fire that burned Storm King Mountain in western Colorado taking the lives of 14 firefighters, including nine hotshots from a Prineville, Ore., crew and two smokejumpers.
Hotshots often fight fires with heavy equipment and hand gear, trying to clear flammable objects to create a fire break. But they are trained in the full array of fire-suppression tactics and are sent to the worst — most dangerous — part of a fire.
Smokejumpers are another highly trained cadre of wildland firefighters, the Army Rangers to the hotshots’ SEALs, if you will. They parachute into remote fire locations, often seeking to suppress small fires before they grow.
Like the Yarnell fire, the Storm King Mountain fire was sparked by lightning in an area stressed by drought and therefore full of fast-burning fuel. Both fires were relatively small when they they drew the attention of firefighters, and both seemed slow to grow at first. Both engaged plenty of firefighters, including hotshots and smokejumpers before they became deadly.
Most significantly, perhaps, both fires experienced a sudden shift in wind speed and direction leading to a lethal explosion in size. In Colorado in 1994, the cause was an advancing cold front, which meteorologists predicted, although that word did not get to the firefighters already deployed on the mountain, according to contemporary reports in The Oregonian.
The Oregonian, which added 1994 reports about the Storm King Fire to its website Monday, provides a step-by-step analysis of what went wrong two decades ago. The report details what the paper calls “a pastiche of tragic coincidences”: Safety zones that weren’t safe or accessible; the lack of a sense of urgency among firefighters and those directing them; failure to identify a certain plants that fueled the fire; and the loss of a 38-cent clip that idled a chainsaw.
Erick Hipke was a smoke jumper on Storm King Mountain. Like the other firefighters on the mountain, he did not realize the gravity of his situation until the last second. When he finally understood how close disaster was, he sprinted uphill and dove over a ridge, managing to reach the relative safety of already-scorched land where he deployed his heat- and fire-resistant emergency blanket, thus surviving the conflagration that took the lives of so many other men and women.
Here’s how his mother, Sue Hipke, described her son’s frame of mind after the deadly blowup to the Oregonian: “Erick feels a great deal of remorse for the ones that were left behind. He chose to run. He’s a runner. That’s how he got out. They saw it coming and decided to leave. It just accelerated. And what really hit him was a big burst of flame — or whatever it was — that pushed him down. And he was able to get up and get over the ridge and escape.”
We know that many firefighters in Arizona will experience the same kind of survivor’s remorse in the coming days and months and years.
We know that the heart of the community of Prescott is torn open by the loss of so many, just as we know firefighting companies across the nation are mourning today.
We join them in their grief just as we remain in awe of the valor and courage that makes so many stand up to battle fires, whether they do it in urban firehouses where they eat, sleep and fight fires with their comrades; in rural volunteer fire companies where they drop everything at work or at home when the alarm sounds; or in elite companies or military units that deploy at a moment’s notice into the battlefields at home.
Today we stand with Prescott, Ariz. We stand with the firefighters. We stand with their families. And we pray for rain to quench the fires where drought now rules because we know that the Yarnell fire, like the Storm King Mountain blaze, is not satisfied by the lives it has taken.