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Charlotte-area firefighters mourn their fallen Arizona brethren

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

Nearly a year to the day after four Charlotte area men died battling a South Dakota wildfire, an Arizona wildfire claimed the lives of 19, leading many local firefighters to reflect on the inherent danger of their jobs.

“Wildland firefighting is some of the worst firefighting that anybody has experienced because it’s so hard to put out,” Chris Stowe, a spokesman for Crowders Mountain Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said. “It’s very hard. It’s very taxing.”

An out-of-control Arizona fire on Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix overtook and killed 19 members of an elite fire crew. It was the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the country for at least 30 years.

“The wildland firefighting community is not a big community,” said Matt Barker, assistant district forester for the Mount Holly office of the N.C. Forest Service. “Whenever you hear about a tragic event like that, it reminds us that there’s an inherent risk in what we do.”

Stowe said that firefighters in the southwest face added difficulty because of the low humidity and extreme heat.

Yet on a smaller scale, Stowe said his department can empathize with the difficulties in battling a wildfire.

About 20 percent of the calls they respond to in their 46-square-mile district are for wildfires, he said.

“In a structure fire, there’s only so much combustible material to burn,” he said. “When you’re in the woods, it’s an eternity that it can burn.”

Because they may battle a blaze for hours and sometimes days, firefighters wear a different uniform when responding to a wildfire.

Responders wear lightweight gear that covers their entire body, a helmet, water cans and steel-toe boots.

While the gear usually suffices, it can quickly become inadequate if the wind suddenly shifts, Stowe said.

“You can be right beside it for two days fighting it and the wind shifts and you can’t get out of the way,” Stowe said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

In the Arizona blaze, firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters – tentlike structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat – when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told The Associated Press.

“That’s the last line of defense,” said Josh Crisp, the director of the Regional Emergency Services Training Center at Gaston College. “You just cover yourself and wait for the fire to burn over you and hope what you have in the tent is enough for you to survive.”

Battling the blaze from the air can be equally dangerous, as shown by the deadly plane crash last summer that killed four local men in the N.C. Air National Guard.

Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte, Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, Maj. Joseph McCormick of Belmont and Maj. Ryan David of Boone died July 1 when their specially outfitted C-130 cargo plane crashed during a mission fighting wildfires in South Dakota.

Officials concluded that a microburst pulled the Air National Guard plane into the ground.

Crisp noted that large wildfires can generate their own wind and weather patterns, making them even more unpredictable.

“You train as much as you can and get the most accurate weather forecasts, but there’s really no way to mitigate all of the risk because you are going out in a wildland environment and finding a fire,” said Barker.

Stowe said he would like to see more measures taken to prevent wildfires.

Although the Arizona wildfire started from a lightening strike on Friday, most are started by humans, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

And while the total number of fires has decreased over the last year, the total acres burned has increased.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of fires decreased from 78,979 to 67,774. Yet during that same time, the total acreage burned by wild land fires increased from 5.3 million to 9.3 million, the U.S. Fire Administration reported.

Arriero: 704-804-2637; On Twitter: @earriero
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