Heroism on the fire lines

Arizona deaths a timely reminder of perils

By The Mercury

Every year Americans see news footage of wildfires in the West, often racing across rural areas and through canyons and sometimes engulfing neighborhoods of million-dollar homes. Among states already struck this year are California, New Mexico, Colorado, and, most recently, Arizona.

Occasionally, someone dies — a homeowner who doesn’t evacuate quickly enough or a firefighter who gets trapped by an unpredictable and treacherous blaze. Most people recognize that these fires are dangerous, but the reality sometimes seems as distant as the fire itself.

The deaths of 19 firefighters trying to prevent the spread and gain control of a fire in northern Arizona offer a shocking reminder of the perils of such events. The 19 who died were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite 20-person team whose members recently took their courage and expertise to wildfires in New Mexico. The lone survivor Sunday was acting as a lookout several miles from where his friends were killed.

As Dan Fraijo, Prescott , Ariz., fire chief, said, “These are the guys that will go out there with 40, 50 pounds of equipment. They’ll sleep out there as they try to develop fire lines and put protection between homes and natural resources and still try to remain safe.”

Fires in the Flint Hills are rarely as dramatic as those in the West, and the men and women who fight them might not match the Granite Mountain Hotshots and other elite units in terms of notoriety. But local firefighters — those in the Manhattan and other municipal fire departments and the hundreds of trained volunteers who serve in rural departments are acutely aware of fire’s destructive capability.

Yet when they get the call, they rush to fires — in structures and in grassy or wooded areas — to save lives and property. It doesn’t matter whether a fire started as a controlled burn or was ignited by a lightning strike, a careless smoker or an arsonist. What matters is getting it under control as quickly and as safely as possible.

The 19 firefighters who gave their lives over the weekend in Arizona have been described, appropriately, as heroes. The same can be said of the local men and women who risk their lives entering burning buildings to rescue or search for survivors and who combat a fast-moving wildfire on a windy, 100-degree day.

We hope the Granite Mountain Hotshots who died knew when they were alive what important work they did and that their efforts were greatly appreciated. And we hope local firefighters in municipal and volunteer departments — who too often toil in anonymity — realize how appreciated they are.

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