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Firefighters Who Perished in Arizona Faced High Heat, ‘One of the Hardest’ Tasks

July 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Nineteen firefighters were killed combating a wildfire in Arizona, the worst loss of its kind in the U.S. since 1933. Judy Woodruff gets more background on the deadly tragedy and the current conditions on the ground in Prescott, Ariz., from William Welch of USA Today and Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, I spoke a short time ago with William Welch, a reporter for USA Today who is covering the fire in Prescott, and Ken Willette of the National Fire Protection Association. He’s worked in the field for more than three decades, including serving as past fire chief of Wilbraham and Concord, Massachusetts.

Thank you both for being with us.

William Welch, I’m going to begin with you in Prescott, where it’s begun to rain. But tell us what is the latest on the condition of the fire?

WILLIAM WELCH, USA Today: Well, Judy, you know, this rain is — rain is always good for battling fires, but this one not necessarily because it’s thunderstorms. And, as you may know, lightning is what started this fire.

Thunderstorms also can create lots of unpredictable winds that aggravate the fire and make it difficult to predict. It could be what’s happened yesterday. It’s difficult to predict fires where these fires are going to move.

Right now the fire is out of control, uncontained; over 8,000 acres have been burned. We’re expecting that number to grow significantly later today.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Do the firefighters there now have the support they need?

WILLIAM WELCH: Well, they’re getting it.

There are about 400 firefighters on the scene or will be by 6:00 local time. The fire has been under the command of an Arizona team. They’re going to be relieved just to give them a break. And the fire will go under federal command at 6:00.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, William Welch, what are the fire officials there saying about this terrible tragedy, how these 19 firefighters from this elite team were killed?

WILLIAM WELCH: Well, there are an awful lot of questions that remain to be answered. We haven’t gotten any of the details on exactly the circumstance.

We do know that this team of 20 Hot Shots, they’re elite. They’re well-trained, very young, very fit., carry a lot of equipment, almost like a combat patrol, 50, 60, 70 pounds of equipment, shovels, interesting tools that they carry. And they do physical labor, trying to build lines in places where you can’t get heavy equipment.

This particular crew was a municipal crew, which is somewhat unusual. Frequently, they’re under a federal command or some other command.

This one is part of the Prescott Fire Department. In fact, it was about 20 percent of the entire force, and they were headquartered at this Station No. 7, which we’re standing right in front of.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s not known how much experience they had working in wild fires?

WILLIAM WELCH: We believe they were experienced. We will find out more shortly. But we are told by the fire chief and others that they were very well-trained, highly trained and experienced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Willette with the National Fire Protection Association, given your long experience, tell us what are these Hot Shot teams? Who are they? How do they operate?

KEN WILLETTE, National Fire Protection Association: Well, Judy, the Hot Shot teams are comprised of 20 individuals. And they have a tremendous amount of training in fire behavior, in safety, and it’s against standards set by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

So the standards the Granite Mountain crew trained to is the same standard applied to the federal teams as well as the rest of the state and local teams across the country.

And they pride themselves on being physically fit, being fast and able to get into very dangerous conditions, and work right on the fire line with heavy equipment.

They bring in somewhere between 65 and 75 pounds of equipment. They self-sustain themselves for several days. And they do work that not many firefighters could do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Willette, staying with you, so, in a situation like this when they’re working with this wildfire that was out of control, what were they likely trying to do? Is there anyway to tell?

KEN WILLETTE: Well, not knowing exactly what their assignment was, but it’s very typical for these crews to hike in to remote areas and to work directly on the fire line either clearing a trench or a path and removing the vegetation, so that the fire will stall.

The other thing they may do is, in advance of the oncoming fire, clear fuels so that it acts as a fire break. Not knowing what this crew was doing at the time, but those are two very standard operations for a crew of this type.

Again, it’s done right on the front line where the fire is rapidly advancing with minimal protective equipment because of they have to be nimble and be able to respond quickly and work for long periods of time.

And they usually have a lookout assigned to monitor fire conditions and to provide for the safety of the crew at all times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we’re told they were carrying emergency gear with them. Some of them were reportedly wrapped in some sort of protective gear, but still how vulnerable were they?

KEN WILLETTE: Well, what you’re referring to, Judy, is a fire shelter. And every wildland firefighter who works on one of these teams carries one. They train on it periodically.

And they realize that if they find themselves in a very dangerous situation, what they do is, clear an area, lay face down with their feet towards the approaching fire and then they take the shelter and starting from their feet over their head and try to put a cocoon around them.

Now the shelter would help resist the heat in the flame spread as it goes over them. But it’s not meant to sustain for any substantial length of time.

So not knowing the fire conditions they faced, the shelters might have been effective, but we don’t know how long the fire was around them and how long that they were able to utilize the shelters for. But it is a standard piece of equipment for all wildland firefighters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much harder did it make — how much harder was it for them to do their job, given the fact that there hadn’t been a fire in this area in years, that you had this sort of ground-level brush that there was, the high heat temperature in the air?

KEN WILLETTE: This was probably one of the hardest firefighting tasks a firefighter can ever encounter.

They had to hike in an unknown length of miles to get to the fire front, then, with the high heat, the high humidity and trying to work in this area, extremely exhausting, and the topography. They had to walk up the hill. And they had to be ready to go to work at a moment’s notice, so tremendous physical exertion.

And the fire conditions were influenced, as you mentioned, by this low vegetative fuel, which is the grasslands and chaparral, which is a very low brush that grows to the ground. And all of this fuel forms a blanket. And once that blanket begins to burn, it just rapidly travels and follows the fuel source. Extremely challenging conditions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a terrible tragedy, taking all but one of the members of that elite team.

Ken Willette joining us from Boston with the National Fire Protection Association, our thanks to you and to William Welch with USA Today in Prescott.