Local Fire Chief Reflects On Experience With Wild Fires (VIDEO)

By Rachel Martin

July 1, 2013 Updated Jul 2, 2013 at 1:08 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (www.incnow.tv) – A local fire chief reflects on his experiences fighting wild fires in the Western United States.

Chief Brain Gillett of the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department says he’s gone out west three times to fight wild fires across five different states. He says it's totally different from fighting structure fires.

"Unlike fighting a house fire where that fire is mostly contained in the walls of that structure, a wildland fire can be multiple thousands of acres and can be influenced greatly by the wind and by if you're standing on a slope. And so there are so many different variables,” he said.

Those variables can be wind speed, dry conditions, and intense heat, which can change circumstances in an instant. Fire officials say weather conditions played a factor, as wind speeds reached up to 44mph on and temperatures neared 100 degrees on Sunday.

“They’re really highly trained and highly experienced, and something like this is highly unheard of. They know what they’re doing and where they should be. This had to be just the perfect storm of the weather and the fuel they were working in that they just got caught,” Gillett said.

The 19 Arizona firefighters were part of an elite squad called "hotshots" who are specifically trained for battling wild blazes. The crews are normally made up of 20 people, and officials say the lone survivor left the group to retrieve a vehicle. Gillett says training for these firefighters is based on experience and physical fitness because of the unpredictability and physical demands.

“This crew had to hike miles to where the fire was. You can’t drive to them like we do a house fire here and park our fire truck right in front of it. These guys had to carry hundreds of pounds of equipment: chainsaws and tools right to the fire and then start to try and fight it,” said Gillett.

There are 110 hotshot crews in the Western U.S. Crews usually carry small coverings that can be described as a tin foil tent. Those coverings are brought out in emergency situations to protect firefighters from extreme heat, flames and smoke. Fire officials claim when the bodies were found several were inside the protective tent, but this time they proved not to be enough.

“You’ve got the long-sleeves, gloves, hood, helmet. You’re covered up except for your face. Then it could be over 100 degrees just standing there not near the fire,” he explained. “So it’s hot [outside], you’re wearing hot clothing to protect yourself, then the fire’s hot. It doesn’t take long before you’re spent.”

Gillett reflects on his time out west, and says he remembers working 12 to 14 hour days digging in the dirt in extreme heat. That’s why Gillett says being a hotshot is young man’s profession, and in fact, officials say the average age of those who died was 22-years-old. When it comes to fighting the fires and dealing with loss, Gillett says he can relate to both.

"Firemen...it's a brotherhood. And firemen from all around are feeling the pain today that they've lost 19 brothers. Whether they knew them or not, or whether they're from Indiana and these guys are from Arizona it doesn't matter. We're feeling the pain."

Fire officials say it was a lightning strike that sparked the fire Sunday, and it's now spread to over 8,000 acres.

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