Tragedy Strikes Arizona Fire Crew

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (TheStreet) -- On Sunday June 30, 19 members of Prescott Fire's Granite Mountain Hot Shot Crew died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire here in Yavapai County, where I live.

Yavapai County is about 100 miles north of Phoenix and is probably most known for the towns of Sedona and Prescott. This is the largest loss of firefighter lives in a wildfire in 80 years.

In addition to my work as an investment manager, I have also been volunteering as a firefighter since 2003 and was appointed Fire Chief of the Walker Fire Protection Association about a year and a half ago. The Prescott fire community is regarded as a national model for interagency cooperation for bringing together local, state and federal resources.

On May 22 of this year I was first on scene shortly after midnight to a wildfire I named the Green Gate Fire. Our role in most fires is initial attack and recognizing the resources needed and then calling in those resources. Within 90 minutes we had the first of two U.S. Forest Service hot shot crews on scene (different crews than the Granite Mountain Crew) and shortly thereafter we had support from the Central Yavapai Fire Department and Arizona State Forestry Division.

The Green Gate Fire had a positive outcome due, in part, to luck but also because all of these disparate agencies knew each other from off-season interagency training and that our radios all had the same frequencies.

In any training exercise or actual incident the top priority spelled out in the briefing is life safety. All wildland firefighters carry an Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) as a safety reference tool. Part of the process upon starting to work on a fire is establishing LCES, which stands for lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones.

On a large crew there will be one or two firefighters stationed to act as lookouts watching for any changes in fire behavior or changes in factors that could influence fire behavior like wind or other weather. The escape route is often the same way that the crew came in and a true safety zone is a large open area determined by the size of the fire -- but in reality there will be very few true safety zones on a forested mountain.

Another key safety phrase is "situational awareness." While the phrase is self-explanatory, the list of "watch outs" is long and includes threats overhead like dead trees falling, threats on the ground that you encounter in Arizona like rattlesnakes and scorpions, debris like log rounds rolling down hill at an accelerating rate, remaining properly hydrated, not mention the actual fire. The list goes on.

Local news here in Arizona is reporting the wind changed direction, which caused the fire to surround the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. All wildland firefighters carry a fire shelter for this sort of circumstance. Although it is possible to survive a shelter deployment, survival is a low probability. Practicing how to use the shelter is part of the annual "refresher" training that we all take every spring before the fire season starts.

Fighting wildfires is very physically demanding. The terrain is almost always very steep, the minimum personal protection equipment or PPE is very heavy to wear, the tools to do the job are heavy and the hours are very long. My shift on the above mentioned Green Gate Fire lasted from 12:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., although we did get two hours off in the middle of the day.

That was the longest shift by far I've ever had on a fire by eight hours and the steepest terrain after 10 years of volunteering. For an all-volunteer department the work was fun and will make for great memories. A one local news reporter put it, the Hot Shots are the Navy Seals of the wildland community, and they routinely put it 16 hour days for two weeks at a time on large Type 1 fires like are currently going on in Colorado. Yesterday the Yarnell Hill Fire was also escalated to a Type 1 incident.

It is truly a privilege to be able to do this work even as a volunteer and it has been my honor to meet so many quality people in the field, including some of those lost yesterday.

The nature of how firefighting training evolves is such that this tragedy will be studied for years to come and training improved because of it. This, of course, offers no solace to the families of those lost but will help reduce loss of life in future fires.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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