The wildfire catastrophe that took the lives of 19 firefighters in Arizona over the weekend underscores all too painfully the risks firefighters and other public safety and military personnel may encounter on any given day on the job.
The Arizona tragedy, which occurred Sunday as a crew of elite firefighters battled blazes northwest of Phoenix, has a poignant parallel for North Carolina. It was almost a year ago to the day, on July 1, 2012, that four North Carolina National Guard members perished when their C-130 air tanker crashed while dumping flame retardant on a raging wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Two other members were seriously injured by survived.
Like those guardsmen who died in the line of duty, the Arizona crew members were highly trained and experienced professionals. As part of a “Hot Shot” team, they ventured onto the front lines of the region’s worst fires in an attempt to control or at least slow the inferno’s progress across the dry, wind-whipped landscape. These Hot Shot crews are the wildfire equivalent of police SWAT forces that deploy into unpredictable and especially volatile situations.
As was the case after the C-130 crash, this catastrophe will spur reviews and analyses of what happened in the hope of reducing the chances of a repeat occurrence in the future. Those reviews, such as the one that occurred here in Salisbury after two firefighters died in a mill fire, often do spur needed changes in procedures or equipment that can help reduce future risks. But the risks can never be removed. What humans can’t change is the unpredictable nature of fires, especially fierce wildfires like those that periodically ravage huge swaths of Western states.
Most of us never confront the situations that arise for firefighters, police officers, first responders, EMTs and others who serve on the front lines of emergency situations. We can only honor the memory of those who fall in the line of duty and appreciate the courage and sacrifice of those who continue to venture into the teeth of the flames.