The tragic death of the 19 Arizona wildfire specialists on Sunday underscores the oft-time dangers and difficulties their profession encounters.
Even Ohio wildfire/forest fire fighters have died in efforts to subdue what some Plains Indian tribes called “the Red Buffalo.”
In fact, statistics provided by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and compiled by the federal government, shows that from at least 1910, some 1,043 volunteer and professional firefighters have died battling wildfire/forest fire blazes.
This figures also does not include the 19 persons killed Sunday battling the Yarnell, Arizona wildfire.
However, the 1,043 figures does include seven such wildfire-related fatalities in Ohio. Among this second figure were two separate deaths occurring in 2010; both representing the latest such incidents in the state.
Far and away the state experiencing the highest number of firefighter deaths related to battling wildfire/forest fires is California. In that state since 1928 a total of 327 fatalities involving people fighting wild fires has been documented.
This figure includes 33 persons killed in one 1933 incident, the documentation notes.
The greatest number of firefighters to die while handling a wildfire was the 78 persons killed in Cor d' Alene, Idaho in 1910.
Tragically the 19 deaths on Sunday represented only the ninth time since statistics have been kept and are available when fatalities numbered 10 or more in a single wildfire/forest fire incident.
On Sunday, 19 members of the Arizona-based 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed as they battled a wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz. The blaze was sparked by lightening and the crew was caught when the fire rapidly changed direction.
An initial on-site investigation revealed that while some of the 19 members managed to deploy their fire-resistant shelters – described as a last-ditch life-saving tool – the remains of other members were found outside of their specially fabricated safety bags.
Such a scenario has led investigators to speculate on how quickly the fire overcame and killed the crew.
Only Granite Mountain Hotshot member Brendan McDonough, 21, survived, and this owing to the fact he was assigned the job of lookout and communicator.
Ohio Division of Forestry forester Aaron Kloss annually performs drills with these fire shelters, practicing to deploy them and get sealed up as quickly as possible, saying the devices do work.
The 10-year-Forestry Division specialist also says the one-time-use-only shelters work best with radiant-type heat, reflecting up to 90 percent of this form of heat.
However, the shelters are much less effective against direct heat: Flame and hot gases, Kloss says.
“The shelters are engineered and made to provide as much protection as possible,” Kloss says.
That such a tragedy could happen reverberates throughout the forestry community and those persons designated to fight blazes.
Which helps explain why Ohio's forestry division has since the 1980s sent crews and equipment out West on two-week rotational shifts to battle wildfire and forest fires.
Kloss himself has gone out on fire-fighting missions in all but one of the 10 years he's been with the Forestry division along with each of the three years he worked for the U.S. Forest Service.
Presently Ohio's forestry division has one employee assisting wildfire-fighting iniatives in Colorado in a logistical capacity.
“At this time our thoughts are with the families and friends of the 19 brave firefighters who lost their lives battling the Arizona wildfire,” said Natural Resources Department spokesman Matt Eiselstein on behalf of the entire agency. “This tragedy will hopefully serve as a reminder to everyone of the dangers these brave men and women face protecting all of us.”
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn