The Buck Stops Here
I often peruse websites of the newspapers I’ve worked for over the years. It’s a good way to keep up with old friends and the communities in general.
Last week I surfed to the website of the Lassen County Times, an 11,000 circulation weekly I edited for seven years in northeastern California.
To my horror, I found a story about a young man named Luke Sheehy, the only son of some friends who are salt-of-the-earth type people. He was only 28 years old and my son went to school with him.
Luke was a smoke jumper, a job that is somewhat self-explanatory. Smoke jumpers are people who parachute into wildfire scenes ahead of the ground crews to cut fire breaks and generally get a notion of what the fire is doing.
Not everybody gets to be a smoke jumper. They are an elite class of firefighters who have to pass rigorous tests and train constantly, much like Army Ranger units or Navy Seals. So he was no wildfire neophyte.
Luke had just jumped into a fire scene on the Modoc National Forest and was working when a branch split off a tree and landed on him, killing him instantly. The loggers in the Sierra and Cascade mountains call falling branches “widow makers,” for obvious reasons.
Luke’s body was flown to his hometown of Susanville, where the U.S. Forest Service gave him an official ceremony on the airport tarmac. As his parents took him to the funeral home, residents and other firefighters stood on the side of the main thoroughfare, paying their respects.
I write this out of respect for the Sheehy family and in particular, for firefighters of all walks.
We all understand they face danger, but I don’t think many of us understand just how acute the peril can be. Firefighters can get hurt or killed in an instant because of the unpredictable nature of blazes.
I once went into an abandoned, burning building with a rural, volunteer fire department that was practicing skills. The chief wanted me to get the gut feeling of what’s it like to walk into a room in full gear and a respirator when the walls were on fire.
I frankly couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I have also covered numerous wildfires like the one that recently killed 19 top-flight firefighters in Arizona. They were in another elite unit called “hotshots” which carries the full double meaning.
Hotshot crews are often the first to go into a wild land fire on the ground. They are like the U.S. Marines in that regard.
Just like the Marines, hotshot crews are rarely sure of what they’re getting into.
All wild land fire crews are trained to watch the fire closely so that it doesn’t turn on them.
But wind can whip a blaze into a raging fire storm that overcomes you before you can get out and that’s what happened in Arizona. It’s called a flashover.
When the wind shifts, a fire can run hundreds of yards in seconds. You can be a quarter-mile away from the main flames and hardly have any time to react.
Wild land firefighters are actually issued special little bags they can crawl into to try and save themselves when a flashover is imminent. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Some of the firefighters in Arizona were found in or trying to get into those bags.
I was on a highway once taking photos of an air tanker dropping fire retardant when a firefighter rolled up. As he watched the 14,000-acre blaze from about one-eighth of a mile away, he detected a wind shift and we high-tailed it out of there.
Several weeks later I drove through the same stretch and it looked like a blackened moonscape.
I also used to cover fires in a place called the Feather River Canyon in the Sierra, which was as treacherous as it was beautiful. The forested sides on the canyon were so steep you could barely walk upright.
On one of those fires, several people were severely injured by trees that fell and turned into flaming logs that rolled over them. Large rolling rocks struck others.
Anybody who’s ever had flame touch his or her body knows what it can do. It amazes me that there people out there like our own local departments in Pike County who are willing to risk it.
Every time the alarm sounds, they race to a scene that has the potential to what happened to Luke Sheehy. If it weren’t for them, many of us would find out just how tragic that can be.