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UPDATE: Fire crews nationwide observe moment of silence

ADDS what local residents can do to remember the firefighters

Posted: July 3, 2013 11:37 a.m.
Updated: July 3, 2013 11:37 a.m.

As firefighters nationwide paused Wednesday for a moment of silence in memory of 19 Hotshots killed in an Arizona wildfire Sunday, Santa Clarita Valley residents were invited to honor a young member of the perished crew with ties to Los Angeles County.

Kevin Woyjeck, whose father is a county fire captain and who trained at Camp 9 in the Santa Clarita Valley, can be honored with letters or online messages to the family, county Fire Department officials said.

Residents can also donate funds to go to the families of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives or to the Kevin Woyjeck Memorial Fund.

Around the country Wednesday, firefighters held moments of silence to honor the 19 fallen, all members of a Hotshot team that was overrun by flames Sunday when the wind turned a wall of flames onto the location of the crew. The only one to escape was a lookout who warned his colleagues of the danger.

“One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is we don’t forget,” said Jim Whittington, spokesman for Southwest Incident Command Team.

“We will remember this one,” he said, his voice shaking. “It’s tough.”

The loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was the worst endured by a firefighting team since 9/11.

Investigators from across the U.S. will be working this week to try to find out what went wrong. The investigation will include examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports.

They are also expected to the sole survivor of the blaze, 21-year-old Brendan McDonough, survived. He was on a hilltop serving as a lookout. McDonough made it to safety, while the rest were overtaken by the blaze.

“He did exactly what he was supposed to,” said Wade Ward, who implored the media to respect McDonough’s privacy as he and the families mourn. “He’s trying to deal with the same things that we’re all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that’s compounded being there on the scene.”

More than 3,000 people gathered at a high school football stadium in Prescott, Ariz., late Tuesday to remember the 19 men during a service punctuated by repeated moments of silence amid emotional remarks from pastors and officials.

The ultimate goal of the nine-member team of investigators, comprised of forest managers and safety experts who arrived in Arizona on Tuesday, is to prevent a similar thing from happening again.

“We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible,” Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said in a statement.

Safety standards for wildland firefighters were toughened nearly 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain, and investigators found a number of errors in the way the blaze was fought.

In what fire authorities said was an eerily similar situation to the Arizona blaze, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging on Storm King Mountain in Colorado, creating 100-foot flames. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.

Essentially, it was “mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew,” said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado.

“There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it’s almost haunting,” he said.

Those changes included policies that say no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather and post lookouts.

Sunday’s tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference at all in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.

Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said the crew members might have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.
“They don’t want to see a community burn down,” Mangan said. “They want to get in there.”

With the investigation just beginning, it’s not clear what help water- or retardant-dropping aircraft could have provided for the doomed crew.

One contractor, Neptune Aviation Services, had three aerial tankers making drops on the fire earlier in the day.

But at the time the firefighters died, the planes had been grounded because of treacherous conditions, said chief executive Ronald Hooper.

“It wasn’t safe for them to be in the air at that time,” Hooper said. There were “severe winds, erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area.”

However, government dispatch logs show at least two other planes were flying over the fire at the time, one large tanker and one small one. There was also at least one firefighting helicopter in the air early Sunday afternoon.




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