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Times-News documentary "When the Smoke Clears: Firefighter Deaths in the West," explores wildland firefighter deaths and the changes needed to improve firefighter safety. Through interviews with firefighters and fire experts around the country, as well as archived footage and photography, the film explores the 1994 South Canyon Fire and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire. By Dan Warner, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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TWIN FALLS, Idaho • Chris Simonson could have been one of the Storm King 14.
A firefighter with the Alpine Hotshots crew at the time, Simonson remembers when 14 firefighters lost their lives on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo., in July 1994. He was in the same state and familiar with the terrain and type of firefighting they died doing.
“I could have very easily been on that fire, so I have a fairly strong connection to it that way,” he said. “I knew a number of people on the Prineville Hotshot Crew who were killed on that fire.”
In the fall of that same year, he hiked up the mountain to pay his respects. What he experienced still weighs on him as fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Twin Falls District and someone who holds firefighters’ lives in his hands.
It was “heart-wrenching, yet very educational,” he said.
“To learn from it is excellent,” he said.
Simonson spoke Tuesday night at an event hosted by the Times-News in which four journalists reflected on the six months they spent investigating wildland firefighter deaths. Their efforts culminated in the multi-day series “Never Again.” Tuesday’s event featured a screening of “When The Smoke Clears,” a documentary on the same subject filmed and edited by Dan Warner, Times-News online editor.
The project focused on the causes and potential solutions to mass casualties on fire lines, such as the South Canyon Fire and the June 30 Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 in Arizona.
Ashley Smith, Times-News chief photographer, who has been photographing Idaho wildfires for a decade, said the project shaped him. He said he was moved standing atop Storm King Mountain, looking off at the distant ridges.
“It really looks like it could be anywhere in the Rocky Mountain West, and I think that’s why this story is so important to Idaho,” Smith said. “It could be anywhere up in the Sawtooths.”
The series identified five policy changes that could keep firefighters out of harm's way, if implemented by federal officials.
- Small fires not threatening homes should be allowed to burn out, thus reducing fuel for future fires.
- Wildfires that must be fought should be attacked early, when they're still small.
- Firefighters should not be sent to the line from 3 to 6 p.m. but should catch fires earlier.
- Technology that allows firefighters to communicate better and access real-time weather information, from smart phones to tablets, should be infused through the ranks.
- Homes built in wild areas should have defensible space.
About 35 people attended Tuesday’s event, which included a panel of Times-News staff, Simonson and Lynn Bennett, a fire ecologist and timber fuels program manager in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
In hopes of saving lives, Bennett said, he has worked to develop methods to better indicate where extreme fire behavior can occur within the forest. If other areas around the arid West would do the same, firefighters would gain a valuable tool, he said.
“Transferring that information to the boots on the ground is constantly a challenge because these people work in such a dynamic and complex environment that there are so many things happening that we forget, or (they) get over extended,” he said. “For me, one of the things I’ll be trying to do is communicate a real rate of spread and maximum fire potential for the area.”
The panel also discussed decreasing budgets and audience concerns about the emergency shelters firefighters use, the wildland-urban interface and preventive measures, including prescribed burning.
Prescribed burning, Bennett said, is an important firefighting tool and necessary in the National Salmon-Challis Forest.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow, but unfortunately I think that it is something that if we are going to prevent the large fires at the wrong time of the year, we are going to have to learn to live with (preventive) fire,” he said.
But getting prescribed burns started within a narrow window of weather is often complicated, he said.
“There is a lack of resources in the Northwest, and everyone wants to burn on the same three days,” he said. “We have to do it as safe as possible. It takes a lot of resources to make sure that if the wind does come up, you don’t send that fire into someone’s backyard.”
Mechanized clearing, Bennett said, is also helpful to target specific areas and species, and to remove ladder fuels that allow fires to rage and become potential killers.
“We can go in there and surgically address what needs to come out,” he said.
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