CHEYENNE - Wyoming firefighters are re-examining their strategies following the deaths over the weekend of 19 members of a Hotshot crew in Arizona.
Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said dry conditions around the West are causing fires to become more erratic and unpredictable. He said firefighters encountered conditions in last year's tough fire season that even the most experienced among them hadn't seen before.
"We all know it can happen, but it's a tremendous shock when it does happen to that extent," Crapser said of the fire near Prescott, Ariz., that killed the Hotshot crew members on Sunday.
Vern Bentley, fire management officer with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland, said tragedies such as the loss of the Arizona crew are felt throughout the firefighting community.
"Our hearts go out to them and their families," Bentley said. "This is a very significant loss to the fire community. "
Crapser said the crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, was comprised of experienced, educated firefighters who worked well as a team.
"It's a good time for both firefighters and the public to remember how inherently dangerous firefighting can be," he said. "When you think something like that can happen to a crew like that, crews with less training, less time together probably are very vulnerable."
Firefighters are beginning to see conditions worsen as droughts across the region continue, Crapser said. Wyoming experienced the largest number of acres burned in the state's recorded history in 2012 largely because of hot, dry, prolonged conditions.
Fires are spreading faster, winds are blowing more erratically and trees, shrubs and grasses are catching fire and burning quicker. Crapser said fire officials may need to "rewrite the book" on what to expect on fire lines.
Crapser said the public may become frustrated when they don't believe firefighters are doing enough to save buildings. However, he said people need to remember that personal safety is the top priority.
"Part of that is safety and a commitment to make sure something like this doesn't happen," Crapser said.
Firefighters also need to remember that fire shelters do not always save lives, said Bentley, who worked as a member of the Wyoming Hotshots in the early 1980s.
Bentley said all firefighters, including Hotshots, carry fire shelters and know how to use them while understanding that they're the last line of defense. The 19 firefighters killed in Arizona all deployed their shelters.
The shelters are meant to protect people from radiant heat but may not save someone who is trapped in a forest of burning timber, Bentley said.
The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest posted fire restrictions Tuesday to limit the possibility of human-caused fires. Wyoming residents need to prepare for continued hot and dry conditions, Bentley said.