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MailTribune.com
  • Firefighting tragedies 'hit home for all of us'

  • When Kevin Donham got the call on Sunday night, he gasped as though he had been hit in the solar plexus.
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  • When Kevin Donham got the call on Sunday night, he gasped as though he had been hit in the solar plexus.
    "It was like being punched in the gut," said the fire and aviation staff officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "It hit all of us in the fire community really hard."
    Never mind that he didn't personally know any of the firefighters who died Sunday in the wildfire some 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, Ariz. All but one member of the Prescott-based "hotshot" crew and another man working with them were killed after being trapped by the fast-moving fire.
    He knew them because they were frontline firefighters who sweated under the broiling sun and inhaled smoke and dust. And he knew them because he had befriended other young firefighters just like them who had died in the line of duty.
    "When I got the call, it reminded me of what happened in 1994," he said.
    He was referring to the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew caught by the explosive firestorm on Storm King Mountain in Colorado on July 6, 1994. All told, nine members of the hotshot crew died that day along with five other firefighters. At the time, Donham was working as the assistant fire management officer out of Prineville.
    "I had hired a lot of those hotshots as rookie firefighters," he said softly. "These tragedies hit home for all of us. These people are the best we have.
    "Something like this reaffirms there are dangers out there," he added. "As hard as they train and prepare, this can happen. Yet they put themselves out front to protect people's property and resources."
    Like the devastating helicopter crash on Aug. 5, 2008, in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that killed nine firefighters from southwest Oregon, Sunday's tragedy rocked the entire firefighting family, he said.
    "The whole fire community is suffering — we still haven't got a grip on what happened," he said. "But we still need to move forward."
    He noted the Rogue River Hotshots from the forest is in Alaska, its helicopter rappelling crew is in Wyoming and a hand crew is fighting a blaze in Colorado.
    "There is a long fire season ahead of us," he said.
    Veteran firefighter Brian Ballou, deployed to the 1,422-acre Skinnys Road fire out of Fairbanks, Alaska, said the Arizona deaths were equally felt in the Last Frontier.
    "It's hard for every firefighter when there is such a terrible tragedy like this," Ballou said in a telephone interview on Monday. "When you are fighting fires, you get to know every member of the crew."
    A former member of a hotshot crew that began in the Rogue River-Siskiyou forest, Ballou is now with the Oregon Department of Forestry's Southwest Oregon District. He was part of an overhead fire crew deployed to Alaska on Friday.
    "As a firefighter, you recognize there is always a risk," he said. "You have your training and experience to rely on to keep yourself and people who work for you out of harm's way."
    Yet what happened to the Prescott crew demonstrates the danger inherent in the work, he said.
    "It's a reminder that fire always has one more trick up its sleeve," he said.
    Ballou was living in Prescott in the late 1990s to 2002 when its local hotshot crew was being formed.
    "I remember when the city fire chief was assembling that very crew," he said. "There was a lot of pride in the fact the hotshots were local."
    In Grand Junction, Colo., the wildland firefighting crew from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District was also devastated by the news.
    "Our hearts go out to all the families," said team leader Nolan Yocum. "We are all going through a lot of remembrance right now and thinking about all the folks impacted by this.
    "We want them to know the firefighters will never be forgotten," he added.
    Known as Crew 10, the BLM firefighters on the team are military veterans who are positioned to provide initial attack when the next wildfire flares up in that region. They were fighting a fire in Arizona three weeks ago, Yocum said, noting they are a national resource like the hotshot crews.
    "When something like this happens, you have to step back and look at the big picture," he said.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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