Wildfire Disaster Not on the Gunflint Trail

     I’m so shocked and saddened to hear about the 19 hotshots who perished in the wildfire in Arizona.  It’s almost unimaginable in this day and age that a disaster like that could happen.  What an unfortunate event and situation for all involved.

     As a member of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department both Mike and I are trained in wildfire firefighting.  Every year we take a refresher course which involves a class on Situational Awareness, deployment of fire shelters and a pack test.  The pack test is a 3 mile hike with 45 pounds on your back in 45 minutes meant to simulate all of the gear a firefighter must carry through the woods. The fire shelter practice deployment is kind of like practicing swimming without water. If there’s no wind or heat and embers from a fire bearing down on you then it isn’t a very realistic.

     I hate to imagine the thoughts of the firefighters in Arizona.  When learning about wildfire you are taught about fire behavior, fuels, slope and how a fire can change quickly. Fire doesn’t always react the way you think it will and we’ve seen that happen on the Gunflint Trail with the Ham Lake Fire.  The Pagami Fire also did not behave as Supervisors expected it to and people had to deploy fire shelters.  I bet it’s hard to believe you actually need to use your fire shelter even when a fire is bearing down on you.  With all of the communication, safety precautions, fire escape routes and safety zone training it must not seem real to be in situation where one must deploy a shelter.

     It’s a big deal to deploy a shelter.  If you have to deploy a shelter it means you or someone above you screwed up.  If you deploy and didn’t need to then you risk being made fun of for making such a decision. Here’s an excerpt form an analysis of the Pagami Fire. Read the full analysis if you are interested in fire shelter deployment.

The social stigma adds so much weight to the act of deploying your fire shelter,
and with the second guessing after the fact, we’re making it harder for firefighters to keep calm, think clearly and act decisively in crucial moments. A similar pattern was seen among pilots who would delay ejecting until it was too late, because they were trying to regain control of the aircraft.

  There’s alot of pride and machoism in firefighting. Believe me, after feeding hundreds of fire fighters over the years we’ve seen this pride. They should be proud. They are an elite bunch of people who risk their lives to try to control fire, an uncontrollable element.

     I’m sure in future wildfire classes we’ll learn about what went wrong in the Arizona wildfire where 19 firefighters were killed.  My best guess is the main reason they died was because of communication or lack there of it.  Radios that didn’t work, information not getting to the right people in a timely matter or not believing what they were hearing were probably factors in the tragedy. Heavy smoke probably obstructed the view of the pilots so they couldn’t get a could spot on where the fire was to tell the hotshots. The firefighters were in an awful situation and I can only hope they died quickly and didn’t suffer.  To think any thing else is a horror so bad I can’t even let my mind go there.

     Our deepest sympathies go out to all of those involved in this tragedy.