Fighting Wildfires Continues To Be A Dangerous, Deadly Effort

Aug 15, 2018, 8:02 PM | Updated: Aug 16, 2018, 9:47 pm

DRAPER, Utah – Despite many safety innovations and progressive training, an average of 18 people died fighting wildfires in the U.S. each year over the past decade, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

The death of Draper Battalion Fire Chief Matt Burchett while fighting wildfire in California highlights the dangers of that job.

More than 1000 firefighters have died that way in the last century. A former state fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management spoke with KSL Wednesday about why the job is still so deadly.

“I think our firefighters today are much better trained,” said Sheldon Wimmer, who retired five years ago.

“I think it’s safer,” he said. “But, the risks are greater.”

He said wildfires burn hotter and more intensely today, in part because of a lot of beetle kill in western forests, and fire suppression that has left stockpiles of fuel in wildfire zones.

“So, you have to fight those fires carefully,” he said.

Wimmer started his firefighting career 50 years ago. He fought the infamous Yellowstone fires for 41 straight days 30 summers ago.

For the firefighters themselves, much has changed.

“Nowadays, the safety issue is much more important and emphasized much more,” he said.

In 1968, firefighters didn’t even wear protective clothes.

“We wore a pair of Levi’s, or old ‘Can’t Bust ’em’ jeans, they called them, and a cotton orange shirt,” he said. “So, we looked like a road crew for the state of Utah.”

“When you lose somebody, it’s a friend. It really is tough.”

Safer clothes, really protective gear was developed for wildland firefighters in the 1970s. So were individual fire shelters that firefighters can deploy to hold over themselves to fend off a roaring fire.

“We were doing the best we could with what we had,” said Wimmer.

Today, training and technology have improved communications among fire crews, reducing the risks while working around fires. Firefighters are better rested, too.

“In those days, you went out on a fire, you stayed out all summer and you fought fire every day,” said the former fire manager. “You were exhausted by the time it was over.”

After 14 days on the fire line in 2018, firefighters are up for mandatory rest.

“They’re better rested,” said Wimmer. “I think they’re better fed, and I think they are better managed.”

Some aspects of wildland firefighting have not gotten better.

“I think there’s more fires, more catastrophic fires today, than we’ve had in the past,” he said.

So, the fatalities continue. Wimmer has tallied 24 wildland fire fatalities in Utah, or with Utah ties, since 1926. Eight resulted from aircraft crashes.

“Every time you lose one, like this fellow in Draper, you care about them,” he said, referring to Matt Burchett.

He said that everything they did in his fire management office was directed towards helping what the firefighters were doing on the ground.

“We need to protect and help and assist those people out there doing the ‘dirty work’ at the end of a shovel,” he said. “When you lose somebody, it’s a friend. It really is tough.”

Among Utahns killed, 33-year-old Spencer Koyle was overrun by the Devil’s Den Fire and killed 12 years ago.

That’s why safety has become a key part of the firefighting culture. All fatalities and serious incidents are investigated to prevent more fatalities.

“What can we anticipate that we can fix before it happens?” said Wimmer.

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Fighting Wildfires Continues To Be A Dangerous, Deadly Effort