Nineteen lives lost. Nineteen firefighters so experienced at containing lightning-strike fires, like the one that turned on them in Arizona, that it remains a shock things went horribly wrong.
Investigators will piece together exactly what happened when erratic wind and weather combined to push the fire unexpectedly toward the firefighters, cutting off their escape. But beyond the need to seek lessons that might improve forest firefighting techniques, at least one positive can be gleaned — the heartfelt support of Prescott, Ariz., and others nationwide for the firefighters and their families.
More than 3,000 people paid respects to the fallen during a public ceremony this week. They did so because they know these elite forest firefighters, these Hotshot crews, risk lives every fire season to keep homes, businesses and schools safe from sometimes man-made, often natural fires.
It’s a story shared in Nebraska, in places like Chadron, Harrison and Valentine. Nearly a half million acres of Nebraska burned last year during the rec- ord drought. Conditions are better this year, but less than half of the Pine Ridge Forest remains intact.
Firefighting crews from around the country come in to help local firefighters assess, contain and ultimately extinguish these wildfires, often with state and federal firefighting help. Some are paid professionals. Many are volunteers who risk all for people they hardly know.
And it’s not just those who battle wildfires. Staring into any wall of fire is not for the timid. It takes guts and smarts to fight unpredictable flames, and lives and property are often at stake.
The tragedy in Phoenix reminds us again of our debt to those who risk their lives to keep us safe.