By Karen Middleton
For The News Courier
For several local first responders, it was like members of their families died Sunday when 19 firefighters burned to death while battling an Arizona inferno.
The elite team of firefighters – the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots – died while trying to protect themselves under fire-resistant shields from a fast-moving wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., according to the an Associated Press report.
The same report quoted officials with the National Fire Protection Association saying this was the greatest loss of life in a wildfire since 1933. Sunday was also the deadliest day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11, when 340 died.
While fire chiefs who talked to The News Courier Monday all said it’s difficult to compare the magnitude of the Arizona fire to fires fought in Athens and Limestone County, there are also similarities when it comes to dedication and the possibility that “something might go bad.”
“Throughout the nation, wherever firefighters serve – here or there – they are all part of an extended family,” Athens Fire Chief Tony Kirk said. “A piece of me was torn out.”
Kirk said the possibility of not returning alive from a fire “it is always in the back of your mind.”
“We all do our best not to dwell on it,” Kirk said. “If something like that got to preying on your mind, you couldn’t do your job. But, we always do look out for each other – it’s a constant vigil for ourselves and for one another.”
East Limestone Volunteer Fire Department Chief Joey Boyd said he hates to see this happen to anyone in “the brotherhood” of firefighters. “Especially with the large number. It is very disheartening, very sad.”
Boyd said he doesn’t believe personal safety is uppermost in the minds of any of his firefighters but, he acknowledges, “realistically” they all know they are putting their lives on the line.
“You just can’t think about it,” Boyd said. “You can’t dwell on what might happen. If it’s a structure fire – even a kitchen fire – our concern is about the occupants of the home. Will we reach and rescue them in time? We’re more worried about that aspect than what might happen to us. We’re too busy determining what we need to do.”
As far as building firebreaks or clearing brush rapidly, as the Prescott firefighters were doing when strong winds shifted and trapped them, Boyd said several of his department members have taken training through the Alabama Forestry Commission on creating firebreaks.
“Ours is just not comparable with those out West,” he said. “Theirs are miles in scope while ours might be a sagebrush or wheat field.”
Owens Fire Chief Gary Lovell said firefighters are killed everyday somewhere in the U.S., but when something of the magnitude of the Arizona numbers occurs, “It makes you think.”
Lovell said members of his department attend classes in fighting wildfires whenever they can. They always know they can depend on the Alabama Forestry Commission to promptly send tractors and equipment to dig firebreaks when a fire is threatening to blaze out of control.
Lovell said the largest fire he has fought is the BFI Station fire between 10 and 15 years ago, when a man using a Bushhog hit a stone and caused a spark that ignited dry vegetation.
“It spread to 250 to 300 acres before it was contained,” Lovell said. “As a matter of fact, every firefighting unit in Limestone County, plus Athens, was called out to that fire. We are very fortunate that no one was hurt.”
West Limestone Assistant Chief Glenn Tarpley said firefighting is a job that requires dedication and love.
“Anytime you go out on a call you never really know what you’re walking into,” he said. “People who do it have to love it to do it.”
Firefighters Association President Derrick Gatlin also talked of firefighters and first responders as being part of a unique family.
“Ya know, whether it’s in Alabama or Arizona, it’s the same family,” Gatlin said. “We are brothers and sisters in the fire service. Now we must pray for the families of those left behind for God to help them make it through this tragic time.
“But, we must also pray for those still on the ground. They have to fight this massive wildfire with the thoughts of their brothers who died on their minds. We just can’t imagine what it’s like.”