'Can-do' crews are first line of defense against U.S. wildfires

By Laura Zuckerman
Rohnert Park firefighters pack up hoses after spraying a hot spot of the Butts fire in Snell Valley, California July 3, 2014. The fire has scorched more than 4,300 acres since it started Tuesday. REUTERS/Noah Berger

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON Idaho (Reuters) - In nine years of battling wildfires across the Western United States, Edmund Howick has mourned a fallen fellow firefighter and hiked a mountain hauling nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) of equipment on his back to escape a blaze that heralded its advance with a roar.

The risks were already high when Howick, now 31, joined the U.S. Forest Service. But with chronic drought parching much of California, New Mexico and Arizona, tens of thousands of acres already scorched and scores of homes destroyed so far this year across the West, the dangers have only become worse.

Wildland firefighters died at a rate six times higher than colleagues who tackle blazes in urban buildings, according to a June study of deaths from 1994 to 2013 by a group of retired federal fire managers that is entitled "Safety Matters."

Howick is a member of one of four elite crews based in Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forest that deploy across the Western states and rappel from helicopters to provide the first line of defense against wildfires in mountainous terrain that threaten growing communities built in fire-prone lands.

He trains intensively when not on a blaze, including daily cross-fitness workouts that can include long hikes with heavy packs, and must perform a proficiency rappel every two weeks.

"Fire is a totally different animal," Howick said. "You don't love it, you don't hate it. But you will destroy it if you can."

With temperatures heating up, wildland firefighters are now entering their busiest period in what U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in May was "shaping up to be a catastrophic fire season in the Southwest."

Advanced equipment, water- and fire-retardant-dropping tankers, and new technology are unlikely to replace people on the fire lines despite heightened dangers, said Lyle Carlile, wildland fire manager based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"We still need firefighters out there in hazardous situations every day," Carlile said. "These large air tankers and fancy engines can support the fight, but we can't win it without putting people in harm's way."


The firefighting community is still reeling from a blaze northwest of Phoenix in June 2013 that overran 19 "hotshot" firefighters and marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire since 1933.

Howick has his own searing memories.

In 2012, he was assigned to an Idaho fire in which a falling tree had killed his friend Anne Veseth. The first night that Veseth’s colleagues returned to fight the blaze, they lay sleepless in a fire camp listening to the forest crashing down around them.

 "It really wore on them to hear the sound of falling trees like the accident that killed her," he said.  

A blaze in Montana in 2008 saw Howick and fellow firefighters hiking up a 10,000-foot (3,050-meters) peak as towering columns of flames and smoke raced uphill from the canyon below.

"We were ... walking with a purpose," he said of a retreat to mountain snows that secured their safety. "The fire was making a noise like a jet engine."

Heli-rappeller crews undergo a series of safety reviews before preparing to use ropes to descend hundreds of feet from a hovering helicopter.

They use a buddy-check system to ensure crew members are properly outfitted even before they climb into a helicopter, and inspect harnesses and descent devices. They communicate inside the chopper by hand signals because hearing is hampered by flight helmets and the noise of the aircraft.

 "Safety is your top priority, but you are also looking out for the safety of your brother and sister firefighters," he said.

Following the deaths of 14 firefighters 20 years ago in Colorado, crews were given formal permission to walk off a fire if they felt the dangers were unwarranted.

But the "can-do" culture of the firefighting community leads even veterans to remain confident in emergencies, the "Safety Matters" authors said.

The study said U.S. fire managers failed to adequately balance their assessment of risk to property and natural resources against the dangers to firefighters when tackling blazes.

Carlile said a federal panel on firefighter safety would likely take any constructive feedback under consideration.

"We are a learning culture. We don't like to see firefighters dying in the line of duty and we take lessons from incidents like that to ensure they don't happen again," he said.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Jill Serjeant and Peter Cooney)