CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was a difficult Monday for one West Virginia Division of Natural Resources employee who has in the past been on the front line of forest fires out west.
Bob Beanblossom, a district administrator with the WVDNR Parks and Recreation, takes annual leave each year to act as a public information officer at forest fire sites out west. He said he’s devastated by the news of 19 firefighters killed battling a massive blaze that has destroyed nearly half the town of Yarnell, Arizona.
“Fire fighting is a small community,” Beanblossom said as he teared up. “While I did not know these individuals, there’s still that bond…of brotherhood!”
Beanblossom stressed, the forest fires we see here in West Virginia, while damaging, are not nearly as fierce as the ones that rage out west.
“Typically, the west experiences extreme drought and dry conditions,” explained Beanblossom. “Consequently the vegetation has very low moisture content. That can lead to real large fires.”
That’s exactly the case in the Yarnell blaze. Two-hundred firefighters were battling the 2,000 acre blaze northwest of Phoenix when a shift in wind cut off escape to 19 fire fighters, 18 of them members of an elite team called the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Beanblossom says hotshots are highly trained, usually between the ages of 18-25 and at the peak of their physical fitness. He said the job is a rush.
“It can be exhilarating!”
But Beanblossom stressed that does not mean the team takes unnecessary risks. In fact, they have a lookout, create safety zones and are in constant radio communication with base camp.
“The number one objective of every fire suppression incident team out west,” according to Beanblossom, “is public and firefighter safety!”
He said unfortunately, in this case, all those precautions could not prevent this tragedy despite the best equipment available.
“Every firefighter that’s on the fire line is equipped with a fire shelter,” according to Beanblossom. “These are especially designed to withstand high temperatures and they have been instrumental in saving fire fighters lives.”
Officials in Arizona confirm every member of the team did deploy their fire shelter but the heat was too much for them to withstand.
Beanblossom said his heart goes out to the families of those fire fighters.
The Yarnell blaze is the deadliest forest fire in 80-years. In 1933, 29 fire fighters were killed in the Griffith Park wildfire in Los Angeles.