Despite the more than 2,000 miles separating the East End’s volunteer fire departments from the deadly wildfires of central Arizona that killed 19 firefighters Sunday, local firefighters feel a shared sense of loss for the fallen and are reminded of just how treacherous their job truly is.
The elite “hotshots” crew of firefighters was overtaken when a windstorm whipped up the flames around them. According to reports, some did not even have time to deploy their personal shelters—cocoon-like devices made of a fire-resistant foil material to be used as a last-ditch effort to protect themselves.
The losses hit especially close to home for those who fought the massive Sunrise Wildfires of 1995 as they raged on for more than a week, destroying thousands of acres of protected pine barrens. Although no lives were lost during the blaze, 30 firefighters were injured and equipment was damaged and destroyed.
Southampton Town Fire Marshal John Rankin was among the firefighters on the front-lines in 1995 and said events like that, and the recent wildfires in Arizona, reaffirm the dangers of being a firefighter and the importance of diligent training.
“Any loss in any fire is extremely tragic,” said Mr. Rankin, who still volunteers with the Eastport Fire Department. “It’s even more so for the firefighting community because of how close we are.”
Southampton Fire Department 2nd Assistant Chief Chris Brenner described the losses as terrible and horrific, comparing his feelings now to the way he felt after the massive losses after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Fire Department of New York lost 343 firefighters when the Twin Towers collapsed.
“If you wanna look at 9/11, we lost 343 brothers that day and we lost 19 more this week,” Chief Brenner said. “They went to work that morning and they’ll never come home. I just can’t imagine my family having to go through that.”
Suffolk County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services issued a statement in the immediate aftermath of the Sunday’s tragedy, saying its representatives were “very sad to learn 19 firefighters lost their lives battling the Yarnell Fire near Prescott, Arizona. Our thoughts and prayers are with their departments and families as they deal with this incredible tragedy.”
Joseph Ambrose, a volunteer firefighter and former chief of the North Sea Fire Department, called the casualties of the Arizona wildfire tragic and said his department flew its flag at half-mast in honor of the fallen.
Mr. Ambrose said the events of this week bring back memories of his experiences with the Sunrise Wildfires.
“In the ‘95 fires, seeing the other trucks in the woods burning up while you’re driving into the brush, it hits you in the gut,” he said.
Westhampton Beach Fire Chief John “Chip” Bancroft said he felt remorse for the firefighters who died, expressing sympathy for the youngest members of the crew—21-year-olds Grant McKee and Kevin Woyjeck—saying they “hadn’t even started living yet.”
Chief Bancroft said the conditions for wildfires differ vastly between Arizona and the East End because of the terrain—which is far flatter here—and wind patterns. Access to water and tanker trucks also give local firefighters an advantage in battle against forest blazes, he added.
“From what I can see our equipment would kind of give us an advantage,” Chief Bancroft said, noting that the Arizona firefighters have been widely depicted battling the fires with chainsaws and shovels. “Plus, we’re fighting level and they’re fighting uphill.”
Despite the geographic differences between the two locations, Eastport Fire Chief Ryan King said when it comes down to it, a fire is a fire.
“Wildfires are the same here as they are anywhere—the only difference is our crews are in the woods on trucks with pumps and water, whereas I saw some of the guys on the news were just going in there with chainsaws and shovels,” Chief King said. “When our guys are in the woods they have tanks with 1,000 gallons of water in them and we send the tanks in two at a time.”
Chief King said the events in Arizona are a sobering reminder of what the potential is when responding to any fire, and should reinforce the importance of training and preparation.
Chief Bancroft said his department takes many steps takes to be ready for such an event. The preparation includes practicing with brush fire trucks and equipment, as well as running drills and setting up protocols to keep firefighters safe.
But the most important thing local fire departments do in preparation for disasters is build strong lines of communication with one another, he said.
“All the chiefs basically know each other. We can walk up to one another and be comfortable,” Chief Bancroft said. “For example, I can walk up to Chief Ryan King from Eastport at a fire and say, ‘Hey Ryan, how’s it going? What have we got here?’”