Granite Mountain crew gave lives for others

It’s happened again. Nineteen years after a wildfire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs claimed the lives 14 firefighters, a blaze in Arizona has killed 19 firefighters, including 18 members of a Prescott, Ariz. hotshot grew highly experienced in battling difficult fires.

As of Monday afternoon, authorities were still trying to determine exactly what happened to the 19 firefighters who were killed Sunday after most of them deployed emergency fire shelters. But, in the extreme heat and blustery winds that have struck much of the West the past week, it’s not hard to imagine the conflagration near Yarnell, Ariz., changing directions swiftly, then roaring over the location where the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots were working.

That’s essentially what happened to the Storm King firefighters in 1994. A gust of wind caught the blaze at the bottom of a hillside, and it exploded up the hill to where the group of mostly Prineville, Ore., hotshots were working. They had no time to do anything but deploy their emergency shelters, which proved as ineffective for them as they did for Arizona crew.

There will no doubt be lengthy reports written about the deaths in Arizona on Sunday, just as there were after the Storm King fire. Perhaps the people preparing the reports will find issues similar to those on Storm King: poor communications, meterological reports ignored, people deployed in areas where they shouldn’t have been.

But no matter what the reports say and who shoulders the blame for the deaths, one thing is indisputable. Fighting wildfires is an inherently dangerous activity. And it appears to becoming more so.

As an article in The Daily Sentinel Sunday highlighted, the combustibility of trees and other vegetation in much of Colorado is now at its highest level in at least three decades. Furthermore, as ever more homes have been built in the urban-wildland interface, the potential damage from these fires and the pressure on local, state and federal agencies to do everything they can to battle them, increases dramatically.

It would be great if federal and state agencies had more aircraft to fight wildland fires. We support the efforts of state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, to secure funding for a Colorado air tanker fleet. King’s bill to create such a fleet was passed by the Legislature this year, but with no money to pay for it.

However, even a massive air tanker fleet couldn’t entirely control the fires burning in the West this summer. Some of the work must be done by people on the ground. And, in the wake of this latest tragecy fire agencies must re-examine how they deploy fire crews in these extremely dangerous conditions.

In the meantime, we join millions of Americans in mourning the deaths of 19 very brave individuals, who lost their lives Sunday trying to protect the lives and property of others.


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