Maine firefighters react to Arizona deaths: ‘It’s just totally, totally devastating’

A Maine Forest Ranger uses a fire hose to douse a fire with high flames earlier this year. He is wearing all of the protective gear issued to a Maine Forest Ranger, including Nomex fire-resistant pants and shirt, leather boots and gloves, a hard hat, eye protection, a portable radio and a backpack containing a fire shelter.
Courtesy of Maine Forest Service
A Maine Forest Ranger uses a fire hose to douse a fire with high flames earlier this year. He is wearing all of the protective gear issued to a Maine Forest Ranger, including Nomex fire-resistant pants and shirt, leather boots and gloves, a hard hat, eye protection, a portable radio and a backpack containing a fire shelter.
Posted July 01, 2013, at 2:35 p.m.
Last modified July 01, 2013, at 8:34 p.m.

Maine’s wilderness firefighting community was reeling on Monday, a day after 19 elite “hot shots” were killed near Prescott, Ariz., while fighting a wildfire.

“We’ve been talking about it all day today with the rangers and the support staff,” said Jeff Currier, regional forest ranger for the Maine Forest Service. “It’s a bit surreal when something like this happens. I’ve been involved with fatal fires before, but to have 19 [die] all at once, it’s just totally, totally devastating.”

Currier explained that about 200 Maine firefighters, including both Maine Forest Service rangers and others certified to fight wildland fires, make up the state’s “call firefighters,” all of whom might be asked to deploy to fires like the one in Arizona.

No Mainers were in Arizona, Currier said, though two have been deployed to Colorado, fighting two separate wildfires.

Currier, who has fought fires in 17 different states and Canada during his 21-year career with the Maine Forest Service, said that a single incident like the Arizona tragedy emanates shockwaves that affect firefighters across the nation.

“The wildland firefighting community across this country is not as big as folks might think,” Currier said. “It’s really quite small. Maine’s forest rangers have the opportunity to travel quite frequently to fight fires in other states. So we end up meeting a lot of people and a lot of those people become our friends … you might go to a fire in Colorado and while you might not recognize people’s names, you’ll certainly recognize faces from past assignments.”

Currier said he has not seen a list of the names of the firefighters killed in Sunday’s incident, but said he has been on the phone with an incident commander in Phoenix.

“He’s obviously taking this very hard, as you might expect,” Currier said.

Currier said Maine firefighters must train specifically to become qualified for deployment at wildland fires. That training includes annual physical aptitude tests and refresher courses.

“We send out folks [to other states battling wildfires] on a fairly frequent basis, when we can afford to do it here in the state,” he said, explaining that responding to Maine’s potential fire danger is the agency’s top priority.

Upon deployment, Maine firefighters typically complete two-week assignments.

Currier said the Arizona incident, in which thunderstorms are thought to have made wind conditions unpredictable, is a worst-case scenario that firefighters never want to see.

“I have been [in unpredictable situations], as have many other rangers,” Currier said. “We train to recognize fire behavior and weather indices so that we can hopefully avoid situations like that. But fires will sometimes do their own thing, and weather will do its own thing.”

The firefighters who were killed in Arizona were forced to deploy personal fire shelters, which Currier said is a sign that the situation has deteriorated.

“I don’t believe any forest ranger [from Maine] has ever had to deploy a fire shelter,” Currier said. “It’s a last-ditch effort to save your life.”

Currier said fire shelters look like small pup tents made of heat-reflecting aluminum foil. Firefighters set up the shelters, lie facedown on the ground, and breathe the air that’s closest to the ground.

“It’s a very serious event when you have to pull out your fire shelter, much less deploy it,” Currier said.

Firefighters try to avoid getting in positions where fire shelter deployment is necessary, according to Currier. But sometimes, that’s just not possible.

“Many of us have seen fire situations where you simply have to disengage,” Currier said. “If the conditions are so dangerous or potentially dangerous … that’s what we do. And many of us have been in that situation.”

Currier said that extreme heat and already raging wildfires in the southwest probably means that more certified wildland firefighters — including some from Maine — will likely be needed in the coming days and weeks.

“We have a few people listed [as available] for mobilization now,” he said. “I expect we’ll continue to get calls.”

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