Honoring those wildland firefighters who have fallen in the line of duty
If you would like to help support the Wildland Firefighter Foundation which in turn provides support to the families of fallen firefighters, please go to the the Foundation's website.
"Wildland firefighters represent the diversity of the land they protect. They are federal, state and local firefighters, private sector firefighters, interface firefighters, and volunteers from rural communities and towns across the United States. Many are long-time career professionals, some much newer to the job. They're ordinary people doing an extraordinary job – a community of committed individuals who work and train to protect our private and public lands.
The Wildland Firefighter Foundation honors and recognizes our wildland firefighters and strives to take care of our fallen and injured."
Don Studebaker USFS 1949-2005
Don inspired many with his talents and unquestioning dedication to the men and women he led. Don passed away from a heart attack a few months after retiring from the fire service.
"...there is no one else that I would rather have by my side when the convection column blocks out the sun.” -Bill Gabbert
Steve's memorial in San Diego County
Memorial for Steve Arrollado at the CDF Unit Headquarters in San Diego, California. Steve was a remarkable young man whose tragic passing inspired the development of the fire resistant clothing all wildland firefighters wear today.
In memory of
Pablo Cerda Jess McLean Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser Jason McKay Daniel Hoover-Najera
Fallen USFS wildland firefighters during the 2006 Esperanza fire, Riverside County, California.
This is the home where Pablo, Jess, Mark, Jason, and Daniel were killed. If firefighter safety had been considered, this house would have never been built in the first place.
Wildland wildfire protection is a privilege, not a right. Firefighter safety is more important than a house
Contributed by Jim Hart
The loss of five USFS firefighters killed in action while trying to protect a house in the 2006 Esperanza Fire has once again reminded us that we need to re-adjust how we think about wildfire within the WEZ (“Wildland Entrapment Zone). Most people think of this as the WUI or "wildland/urban interface," where homes and communities are built right next to wildlands. But in light of recent tragedy fires, WEZ is a much more accurate description of what firefighters find there.
Two issues need to be addressed:
- Growing public expectations that firefighters will protect every structure within the WEZ no matter the cost.
- Wildland firefighters are going to places to fight fires where they never did before. They are placing themselves in positions that would have never been considered in the past - immediately upslope from a fire with flammable stuff in between them and a structure they are attempting to protect.
Here’s what needs to be done:
1. There are going to be structures, no matter what is done in or around them, that will never be safe for firefighters to be near in a wildfire. What’s the determining variable? Structures at the top of a fire chimney or within a known fire corridor. Although building codes are improving, houses are still being built within known fire corridors and in physical locations that literally beg to be burned during an extreme event. These structures need to be permanently red flagged, mandating that firefighters are NOT allowed to go there to engage in structure protection.
2. Vegetation management zones around a home are essential and they need to be done properly. What does this mean? It does NOT mean taking a chipper and grinding the landscape down to the dirt and then going away. All that is doing is creating environments where massive amounts of fine fuels (weeds and grasses) are encouraged to grow. The 100 foot zone (or whatever reasonable distance is required to prevent ignition by flame contact or radiation) needs to contain appropriate vegetative cover that will prevent the growth of fine fuels and will provide sufficient green vegetation to act as a buffer to embers and as a heat sink to the flame front.
Flames being driven by strong winds moving upslope, active structure protection, and fine, weedy fuels can be killers. We’ve got to change our focus from generalized clearance recommendations to specific requirements that specify how to remove dangerous fuels and create proper vegetative cover in order to prevent weed growth. And no, this doesn’t mean irrigation and fields of ice plant. Ultimately this will fail because down the line water will become the limiting factor. It takes some work, but properly managed, low-water use, fire-safe landscaping is possible. This approach also allows a homeowner retain a moderate amount of the surrounding, low-maintenance, native vegetation (properly thinned) instead of creating a moonscape requiring yearly weed abatement.
3.Every house within the WEZ (“Wildland Entrapment Zone”) must be constructed out of non-flammable materials. No wooden decks, no wooden roofing, no wooden siding, no wooden patio furniture, no open eaves. If not, houses should be treated like any other fuel and firefighters need to go for the best, and safest, firefighting strategy regardless of where the "fuels" are located. I know retrofitting a house can be expensive, but let’s put things into perspective. Yearly maintenance of the weed lots people are creating around their homes now due to improper clearance activities gets really expensive over time. On top of that, it just doesn’t get done on a consistent basis. Then we are back again to enforcement issues and the creation of massive amounts of fine fuels. Insurance companies could be the enforcers here, but they need to follow rational clearance needs. Generally they don’t. There have been cases where they have required their clients to clear 500-1000 feet. That's clearly overkill. Blanket numbers may be easy in the short run, but we’ll pay for it later with an increase in fine fuels, erosion, and landscape damage.
4. If any firefighter is killed or injured defending a structure within the WEZ, the owner and/or builder should be held criminally responsible if it is found that #2 and #3 were not properly implemented and were the determining factors in the firefighter death or injury.
5.Investigations of firefighter fatalities need to start at the organizational, system level, not the personal level. Humans make errors. There is very little that we can do about that. However, we can change the environment or "cockpit" in which firefighters fight in order to reduce the consequences of human error. Why did the fatalities occur during the Esperanza Fire? They happened because the "system" (planning commissions, insurance companies, federal bureacracies, and government leaders) has allowed dangerous conditions to develop within the WEZ that increase the risk of firefighter death due to human error.
Maybe we can take a cue from Jeff Bowman, the former San Diego city fire chief. He personally went to the San Diego community of Tierrasanta long before the 2003 Cedar Fire and told residents that there will be homes the fire department would let burn for lack of resources or firefighter risk. After everyone got over the initial shock, most of them began to understand. Some wildfires can not be put out and only those structures built and maintained properly will have a chance of surviving, because chances are, wildland firefighters will not be there. And they shouldn’t be there because they have a job to do - fighting the actual fire instead of squirreling around with homes that shouldn’t have been built in the first place.
"We are not going to die for property. It's time for homeowners to take responsibility for the protection of their homes."
-Tom Harbor, Chief of Fire and Aviation USFS 5/27/07
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"I WISH YOU COULD"
I wish you could see the sadness of a business man as his livelihood goes up in flames or that family returning home, only to find their house and belongings damaged or destroyed.
I wish you could know what it is to search a burning bedroom for trapped children, flames rolling above your head, your palms and knees burning as you crawl, the floor sagging under your weight as the kitchen beneath you burns.
I wish you could comprehend a wife's horror at 3 A.M. as I check her husband of forty years for a pulse and find none. I start CPR anyway, hoping against hope to bring him back, knowing intuitively it is too late, but wanting his wife and family to know everything possible was done.
I wish you could know the unique smell of burning insulation, the taste of soot-filled mucus, the feeling of intense heat through your turnout gear, the sound of flames crackling, and the eeriness of being able to see absolutely nothing in dense smoke-- "sensations that I have became too familiar with."
I wish you could understand how it feels to go to school in the morning after having spent most of the night, hot and soaking wet at a multiple alarm fire.
I wish you could read my mind as I respond to a building fire, "Is this a false alarm or a working, breathing fire? How is the building constructed? What hazards await me? Is anyone trapped?" or to an EMS call, "What is wrong with the patient? Is it minor or life-threatening? Is the caller really in distress or is he waiting for us with a 2x4 or a gun?"
I wish you could be in the emergency room as the doctor pronounces dead the beautiful little five-year old girl that I have been trying to save during the past twenty-five minutes, who will never go on her first date or say the words "I love you Mommy!" again.
I wish you could know the frustration I feel in the cab of the engine, the driver with his foot pressing down hard on the pedal, my arm tugging again and again at the air horn chain, as you fail to yield right-of-way at an intersection or in traffic. When you need us, however, your first comment upon our arrival will be, "It took you forever to get here!"
I wish you could read my thoughts as I help extricate a girl of teenage years from the mangled remains of her automobile, "What if this were my sister, my girlfriend, or a friend? What were her parents' reactions going to be as they open the door to find a police officer, hat in hand?"
I wish you could know how it feels to walk in the back door and greet my parents and family, not having the heart to tell them that you nearly did not come home from this last call.
I wish you could feel my hurt as people orally, and sometimes physically, abuse us or belittle what I do, or as they express their attitudes of, "It will never happen to me."
I wish you could realize the physical, emotional, and mental drain of missed meals, lost sleep and forgone social activities, in addition to all the tragedy my eyes have viewed.
I wish you could know the brotherhood and self-satisfaction of helping save a life or preserving someone's property, of being there in times of crisis, or creating order from total chaos.
I wish you could understand what it feels like to have a little boy tugging on your arm and asking, "Is my mommy O.K.?" Not even being able to look in his eyes without tears falling from your own and not knowing what to say. Or to have hold back a longtime friend who watches his buddy having rescue breathing done on him as they take him away in the ambulance. You knowing all along he did not have his seat belt on -- sensations that have become too familiar.
Unless you have lived this kind of life, you will never truly understand or appreciate who I am, what we are, or what our job really means to us...