FOREST LAKE, Minn. (WCCO) — The fraternity of those who fight wildfires is close knit. Crews are hand-picked from across the country and each summer they volunteer for weeks of duty wherever fires threaten forests and homes.
So it’s understandable how the deaths of 19 members of an elite firefighting crew near Prescott, Ariz., has Minnesota’s wildfire crews in grief.
“Very sad, of course, and it’s hard to know the details,” said Bob Quady, a DNR forester.
Quady has served as task force leader for fires in California, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. He knows that when a crew of firefighters is caught by surprise and decides to deploy their emergency fire shelters, it can only mean one thing: the Arizona crew was out of options, with no time for escape.
“You don’t go into anything thinking I’ve got a shelter,” Quady said. “They’re meant to be the last resort.”
Each member of a fire crew carries a shelter. It’s a laminated foil and fiberglass tent, neatly packed and attached to their gear. The shelter, however, is only designed to reflect radiant heat from a passing fire, and not protect a person from direct flames.
Quady says that at around 500-degrees Fahrenheit, the laminated fabric of the tents can separate and come undone.
The DNR’s Don Mueller explained Monday how deploying the tent works.
“He’s going to shake out the shelter as quickly as possible,” Mueller said as another firefighter climbd into the small, silvery fabric cocoon within about 20 seconds.
Once inside they are trained to put their face low to the ground to avoid breathing the superheated air of the passing fire wall.
“It’s ideal if people can cluster together as a crew and give verbal encouragement,” Mueller said, “because even with the shelter, it gets quite hot inside there, even with low intensity, short duration fire.”
Ron Stoffel is the wildfire suppression supervisor in Grand Rapids. He says he can only imagine what the elite group of “hot shots” went through.
“From what the sketchy information I’ve heard so far, it’s kind of a thunderstorm passed to the south of them and switched the direction of the wind around them 180 degrees. So, they were working all day with the wind, then all the sudden the wind is coming right at them, and the fire is coming right at them,” Stoffel said.
NewsRadio 830 WCCO’s Susie Jones Reports