On the fire line
One of the first things I covered when I arrived here two years ago was an event in Winthrop to commemorate – celebrate would not be the appropriate characterization – the 10-year anniversary of the Thirtymile Fire that claimed the lives of four wildland firefighters on July 10, 2001.
The fire was way up the Chewuch River north of Winthrop. It moved and spread quickly and unexpectedly in ways that caught the firefighting team off guard, leading to decisions that left them no escape route. The victims died under their emergency shelters.
Twelve years is not one of those five- or 10-year marks that typically generate anniversary events. But for the families of those who died, that matters little – every day is an anniversary of sorts in terms of losses suffered and memories revisited.
The Thirtymile Fire’s political and bureaucratic aftermath was complex and, for many, bitter. Under an insistent barrage of demands for transparency and accountability, The U.S. Forest Service revised its guidelines for firefighting procedures and protocols, with safety the primary concern.
Yet just a couple of weeks ago, a similar sequence of fire-behavior events left 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots – elite, highly trained firefighters – dead in the Yarnell, Ariz., fire. Despite the heightened safety measures, the brutally erratic Arizona fire swept over the firefighters, who were deployed in their emergency shelters, with startling and deadly speed.
A widely distributed story by the Tribune Co.’s Washington, D.C., bureau recently noted that some of the same troubling questions about cause and culpability are likely to be raised in the wake of the Yarnell Hill Fire, and in a more highly charged atmosphere because now firefighters are wary of how their answers might be construed.
Even with advanced training in safety and procedures, there will never be a totally impregnable human response to the vagaries of rampaging forest fires. Those of us who live in areas with an annual fire season never forget what unimaginable forces a big blaze can unleash, nor do we ever lose sight of the challenges and dangers that firefighters assume every time they head out. For people living elsewhere, the fires may be a news cycle curiosity, the deaths a horrific event that they can’t begin to appreciate in the same way we do.
From our perspective, the magnitude of the Arizona tragedy is only a matter of scale compared to the Thirtymile Fire. Four or 19, the deaths resonate equally through individual lives and entire communities. “Worse” or “worst” are meaningless comparisons in talking about such things for the friends and families of those involved.
As with the Thirtymile Fire, it would be unhelpful to reach quick or uninformed conclusions about the Yarnell Hill Fire. This latest tragedy also happened to the best of the best – it deserves a dignified and thorough review.