The deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona on Sunday are a wrenching reminder of the dangers these crews face trying to protect lives and property in the arid, increasingly populated West.
This was the deadliest wildfire incident in nearly two decades, and it deserves a thorough investigation. For now, it should serve notice of the duty we all share to minimize the chance of such lethal conflagrations.
While lightning started the blaze in Yarnell, Ariz., it could just as easily been ignited by a tossed cigarette, an undoused campfire or the reckless use of fireworks.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, lightning has only caused one out of eight wildland fires since 2001. Humans are responsible for the rest. As the rural West becomes more populated, there is more property at risk and more people to spark wildfires.
Here in California, 327 firefighters have died in wildland fires over the last century, according to NIFC, and this state has been home to some of the deadliest blazes in national history. Twenty-nine men were killed and 150 injured in the Griffith Park blaze in Los Angeles in 1933. The Rattlesnake Fire of 1953, caused by an arsonist, killed 14 firefighters and one Forest Service employee in the Mendocino National Forest.
Over the last several decades, there have been a decreasing number of tragedies in which firefighters were killed by "burn overs." The term refers to fast-moving fires that, in high winds, can overrun fire crews the reported cause of death for the 19 hotshot firefighters based in nearby Prescott, Ariz.
Part of this reduction stems from efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to investigate lethal incidents and change training and procedures to avoid them in the future. Authorities in Arizona are investigating and will undoubtedly offer some "lessons learned" from the Yarnell fire.
Amid this heat spell and the Fourth of July weekend, all of us should remember our responsibility to keep fires from starting and spreading the best way to protect the lives of firefighters. That means being careful with campfires, matches, heavy equipment and, of course, fireworks.
Use only the approved "safe and sane" fireworks, which are designed to minimize fire risks.
Want to honor the sacrifices of firefighters? Then do your part to make sure this summer they have as little work to do as possible.