The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona Sunday were a wrenching reminder of the dangers these crews face trying to protect lives and property in the arid, increasingly populated West.
This was an even deadlier fire than the 1994 South Canyon fire in Colorado that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters, and it deserves a thorough investigation. For now, it should serve notice of the duty we all share to minimize the chance of such lethal conflagrations.
While lightning started the blaze in Yarnell, Ariz., it could just as easily have been ignited by a tossed cigarette, an undoused campfire or a reckless use of fireworks. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, lightning has caused only one out of eight wildland fires since 2001. Humans are responsible for the rest. As the rural West becomes more populated, there is not only more property at risk but more people to spark wildfires.
Here in California, 327 firefighters have died in wildland fires over the last century, according to NIFC, and this state has been home to some of the deadliest blazes in national history. In 1933, 29 men were killed and 150 injured in the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles. The Rattlesnake fire of 1953, caused by an arsonist, killed 14 firefighters and one Forest Service employee in the Mendocino National Forest. In 1966, 13 "hot shot" firefighters were killed in the Angeles National Forest, fighting the Loop fire, which was caused by a faulty electric distribution line.
Over the last several decades, there has been a decreasing number of tragedies in which firefighters were killed by "burn overs." The term refers to fast-moving fires that, in high winds, can overrun fire crews – the reported cause of death for the 19 "hot shot" firefighters based in nearby Prescott, Ariz.
Part of this reduction stems from efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to investigate lethal incidents and change training and procedures to avoid them in the future. Authorities in Arizona are now investigating and will undoubtedly offer some "lessons learned" from the Yarnell fire.
Yet while firefighters are learning with each fire season, it is hard to say the same for people who live and play in the West's wildlands. Drive up into the foothills and forests of California, and you'll see homes with little or no "defensible space," some surrounded by dry grasses and trees with branches that touch the rooftops.
Amid this heat spell and the Fourth of July weekend, all of us should remember our responsibility to keep fires from starting and spreading – the best way to protect the lives of firefighters. That means being careful with campfires, matches, heavy equipment and, of course, fireworks.
"Every year Cal Fire and fire departments across California respond to hundreds of fireworks-related fires that result in millions of dollars in damage," said state Fire Marshal Tonya Hoover in a statement last week. She urged revelers to check with their local fire department on fireworks bans, and to use only approved "safe and sane" fireworks, which are designed to minimize fire risks.
Want to honor the sacrifices of firefighters? Then do your part to make sure this summer they have as little work to do as possible.