Firefighters continue facing risks

It's truly amazing to me with all the wildland fires across the West this spring and summer that there has been very little loss of human life.

We've had some truly huge fires this year with the Whitewater Baldy fire becoming the largest fire in state history by scorching nearly 300,000 acres. The Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso wasn't nearly as large but it has gone into the record books in New Mexico for being the most destructive to human habitation with 242 structures burned.

Hundreds of firefighters have been involved in fighting these fires and the risk of something going wrong in all this hot, dry, windy weather is great. Yet these brave men and women continue to hike into hell.

I saw one photo that told the whole story as a line of firefighters in yellow Nomex shirts headed up a trail from Ski Apache to work fire lines.

About 35 years ago, while backpacking not far from Whitewater Baldy in the Gila Wilderness we passed a group of firefighters going down the mountain as we were going up. They had been dropped on a fire along with supplies and had finally contained it and were heading out. The sight of their soot blackened faces and the easy gait they employed going down the trail made me long after that kind of adventure. Fortunately the next year when I took the civil service test I didn't score high enough.

Years later I was living on Colorado's Western Slope when Storm King Mountain claimed 14 young lives in the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs. I was living 130 miles away at the time but that day cast a pall on the whole state.

A few years later I was living 10 miles from Glenwood Springs and went to church every Sunday in the shadow of Storm King Mountain. I hiked the Storm King Memorial Trail where the 14 fell and I still can't imagine what it must have been like trying to outrun fire on that hillside.

John N. Maclean wrote about the South Canyon Fire in his book "Young Men and Fire" and his investigation led to positive changes in wildland firefighting. His father, Norman Maclean, who wrote the best-selling book "A River Runs Through It," investigated a similar incident in Montana called the Mann Gulch Fire in the book "Young Men and Fire" which his son John helped finish after Norman's death.

Both books are excellent for someone wanting to understand the mindset and dangers involved in fighting fires.

In 2003 we all feared a replay of the South Canyon Fire when a fire started in the same general area and blew up into the West Glenwood neighborhood. City firefighters trying to defend homes barely escaped with their lives. Lots of homes were lost that day.

The fires that burned neighborhoods in Ruidoso and Colorado Springs recently are sobering. Some of the Colorado Springs neighborhoods seemed pretty urban but they backed up to heavy, dry fuels capable of unbelievable movement when the winds howl in the dry mountain air.

Houses are usually insured and can be replaced, young lives are a different matter. Let's all pray that the brave firefighters locally and across the West stay safe this deadly season.

Karl Terry, a former publisher of the Quay County Sun, writes for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at:

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