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W.Va. firefighters describe Western blazes

The Associated Press
In this April 12, 2012, photo provided by the Cronkite News, Granite Mountain Hotshots crew member Shane Arollado trains with others on setting up emergency fire shelters outside of Prescott, Ariz.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State forester Chris White trains a crew of "hotshots" how to use foil-lined emergency shelters before they head out West to battle blazes each year.

"It's something you hope you never have to break out," White said.

His crew from West Virginia was devastated to read about 19 firefighters -- known as "hotshots" -- who died while battling a lightning-sparked fire in Arizona on Sunday.

A sudden windstorm spread that fire to about 13 square miles, authorities said, trapping the firefighters outside the town of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix. All 19 of the deceased firefighters, from a unit based in the small town of Prescott, had deployed their emergency shelters.

White said he's anxious to read reports about what went wrong as a way to prevent future tragedies and better train firefighters in West Virginia. Last year, he led a crew of 20 state firefighters to battle a forest blaze near Payson, Ariz., north of Phoenix. That fire wasn't anything compared to the one currently raging, he said, but he's seen some western fires explode in a matter of hours.

"When I'm in classes I harp on these guys to pay attention, that this could happen at any time," he said. "And when it does happen, it's just a sad situation."

A crew from West Virginia would most likely be called to help battle forest fires out West later this summer. They would undergo rigorous physical testing and refreshment training beforehand, White said. Part of that training includes using the emergency shelters during entrapment situations.

"It has saved a lot of lives but it's not something you want to rely on," he said. "It's not a guarantee."

White has been on the state's hotshot crew for about a decade. He's skipping this year to spend time with his family, he said, but he's not nervous about going back in light of the recent tragedy.

"I've been fighting fires for 13 years," he said. "It doesn't make you nervous. It really makes you realize what you are going out there to do."

Jeremy Jones, regional director of the state Division of Forestry's Milton office, has been out West the past six years. He will go again when the crew is called later this summer, he said. They could be called to fight fires that spark in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

"We know it's dangerous," he said. "But the firefighter community is pretty tightknit. Hopefully we can learn from whatever mistakes occurred out there [Sunday]."

Raging fires out West behave differently than those in West Virginia, Jones said.

A dry climate and triple-digit temperatures often spread forest fires out of control, like the one in Arizona. But each trip teaches crew members new techniques to battle forest fires here at home, he said.

"We don't really have a summer fire season here in West Virginia," Jones said. "So this gives us more work out West and helps our firefighting abilities." Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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