There aren’t many jobs that require more bravery than being a firefighter. You risk your life to try to save those in danger, battling a blaze that could take the floor from under you or burst unexpectedly through a wall. When your job is fighting wildfires, when wind conditions can shift suddenly and fires can leap quickly from tree to tree, the risks are even greater.
So it was yesterday in Arizona, when 19 firefighters — 19! — were killed while trying to contain a huge wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona. It’s the largest loss of firefighters in a single day since 9/11.
The firefighters were part of an experienced, elite unit that was attempting to clear brush to prevent the spread of the fire. The members of the unit were equipped with the latest technology, including special fire retardant blankets that are designed to allow firefighters to dig a hole, crouch in, cover themselves with the blanket, and hope that the fire burns over the top of the blanket without harming them. Yesterday, though, something happened. The fire turned, caught the firefighters in the wrong position, and the result was disaster. Some of the dead firefighters were found beneath their fire blankets, but the heat and flames were too intense for the technology. It must have been a terrifying and horrible way to go. Two members of the unit somehow survived and are being treated for severe burns.
The Yarnell fire was started by lightning, during a period of intense heat in the desert southwest. It’s a natural occurrence that probably has been happening for thousands of years. The difference is that now people are building houses in those arid hills, and when fires start they expect firefighters to try to stop the fires and save their homes. Every summer, we read about wildfires threatening communities in California, Arizona, Nevada, and other states in the western U.S.
When a tragedy like this occurs, and so many people die, I wonder: why are we allowing people to build houses in places that are regularly exposed to wildfires, and why are we asking courageous firefighters, and their families, to run deadly risks as a result? Wouldn’t it be prudent to reexamine our western land use policies, rather than regularly mourning the loss of some of our bravest citizens who died trying to protect homes that should not have been built in the first place?