When former firefighter and author Sam Sheridan heard 19 firefighters were killed in a raging Arizona wildfire, he instantly knew they had to be hotshots – specially trained wildfire specialists. And it hit the author and former hotshot hard.
“I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and the distress and the despair that’s going on in Arizona right now,” Sheridan told KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don Show.
Sheridan has written about his time as a firefighter for Newsweek, as well as three books. His latest is The Disaster Diaries.
He fondly recalled the unique camraderie of working on crews in Washington state and Arizona, and said the bonds that form are much like the military, even developing their own unique language.
“It’s 20 guys, maybe a couple of girls sometimes, and you’re in the woods for 21 days straight just with each other,” he said.
Investigators have begun trying to figure out what caused the expert crew to get caught in the raging fire. Experts say it was the worst possible combination of low humidity, high temperatures and dense fuel that made for what some are calling the among the worst possible conditions they’ve ever seen.
The 19 hotshots tried to cover themselves with foil-lined, heat-resistant tarps known as fire shelter. But despite their training and defensive efforts, the fire was too strong.
“If a fire’s huge, you can’t do anything to it, it’s too big. It’s putting out the force of an atomic bomb, of Hiroshima, every hour when the fire is pumping a column up into the sky,” Sheridan said.
While he never faced a fire as powerful as the deadly Arizona blaze, Sheridan recalled a number of terrifying times when flames threatened to overtake his own crew. And he said at times like those, it’s hard to think clearly.
“The fire makes noise like a jet engine when big groups of trees are torching off and the heat just pushes you around,” he said. “One time we were holding a line, and all of a sudden I found myself 200 yards back because the heat just moved me there. I couldn’t stay where I was. The plastic inside my hard hat had melted. It’s dramatic. It’s very very hard to think clearly.”
The fire near Prescott, Ariz. is the first in the Yarnell Hill area since 1967. And fire experts say there have been no controlled burns since then, making for nearly record combustion levels for the brush and other fuel on the ground, The Arizona Republic reported.
“Stuff in Arizona, that stuff is supposed to burn every three years,” Sheridan said in criticizing a change in fire policies throughout the west. “So if it goes 40 years without burning, it’s like a powder keg.”
The Yarnell Hill fire is the third deadliest for firefighters in a wildfire in U.S. history. And Sheridan worries the effects of climate change coupled with current fire control policies are making conditions ripe for more tragedies in the future.
“I was just talking to a friend of mine on a fire in Vail today, and he’s saying ‘I’m just seeing fire do stuff I’ve never seen it do before.’ And he’s been a firefighter for 15 years or something like that,” Sheridan said.
Ultimately, Sheridan said the Yarnell Hill fire will be studied extensively by fellow firefighters in hopes of preventing such a tragedy in the future.
“I’m sure that we’ll find that there’s lessons to be learned, but those guys didn’t have time. They were tested.”