National News

Fire shelters considered 'last resort' for Hotshot firefighters

Monday, July 01, 2013

Forest Service Hotshots are regarded by many to be the best of the best. So when news of the 19 firefighters killed in an Arizona wildfire reached firehouses around the country, it was met with stunned disbelief.

"These were highly skilled firefighters, some of the best firefighters in the country. So it kind of shows that it can happen to anyone at any time," said Battalion Chief Oscar Vargas, with the U.S. Forest Service.

Hotshots often hike for miles into the wilderness with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. Though members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots based in Prescott, Ariz., were experienced and trained, the fast-moving wildfire encircled them when the winds suddenly changed, forcing them to deploy emergency shelters, which they had never had to do on the job until Sunday.

Vargas is a former Hotshot captain with more than 15 years experience on Hotshot crews. He says the vast majority of Hotshots never have to use their fire shelters, which is often considered a last resort. The fact that they were deployed by the firefighters shows just how dire the situation must have become.

"We always say it's the last resort. Fire shelters can mitigate some of the hazards if you get surrounded by fire. But they're not fire-proof and don't withstand high elevated temperatures," said Vargas.

Vargas says in light of what happened, fire crews will now revisit their safety training and try to figure out what they could do in the future to prevent another tragedy like this.

"But it's wildfire and there's only so much you can control. Sometimes when you do the right things, things can still happen," Vargas said.

(Copyright ©2014 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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