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Florida firefighters feel the loss in Arizona wildfire tragedy

At the height of a raging wildfire, the last thing Jim Avery wants to feel is a stiff breeze.

Any sudden shift in wind could be fatal, redirecting an inferno and trapping firefighters between the flames.

"Everyone has close calls, that's just the nature of the beast," said Avery, a wildlands firefighter in the Hernando County area.

One of those close calls turned deadly Sunday when 19 members of an elite firefighting squad got trapped and died in an Arizona wildfire. The blaze was reportedly bolstered by a windstorm.

Roughly 2,000 miles away, Avery and his colleagues already were feeling the loss Monday morning.

"It's a terrible thing, the wildlands firefighting community is a pretty tight-knit bunch, even though we're spread over the country," Avery said.

Just a few months ago, he had a close call in a fire that swept up hundreds of acres around the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in Hernando.

He and another firefighter were on bulldozers, culling brush to cut away potential fuel for the fire. They hit a swamp and had to turn back.

That's when Avery saw a wall of flames roaring skyward.

"We went through about 150 yards of fire that was about 40 feet high," he said. They were protected only by the wire and glass enclosure around the cabs of their bulldozers.

"You could have lit a cigarette off the glass of the dozer," said Avery, 59.

It was a lesson in how quickly conditions can change for wildlands firefighters like those killed Sunday near Yarnell, Ariz.

Even the most experienced firefighters are susceptible to flare-ups, which can occur with sudden wind changes, said Jim Karels, the director of the Forest Service.

In parts of the West, the monsoon winds can be the problem.

In Florida, it's the sea breezes.

Just two years ago, two Forest Service rangers were killed near the Georgia border when a smoldering wildfire — one of hundreds burning around Florida — flared up and trapped them.

"A lot of the time it's worst-case scenarios," Karels said. "In our case, it was similar to Arizona in that we were in a significant drought at the time. The fire went from one that was manageable and quickly expanded to a larger fire."

The rangers, Josh Burch, 31, of Lake City and Brett Fulton, 52, of White Springs, were using bulldozers to try to contain the 200-acre Blue Ribbon Fire in Hamilton and Columbia counties.

"They were very good firefighters," Karels said. "They had a lot of experience because we have a lot of fire activity here in Florida."

Wildfire season in Florida begins around March and ends in June. In July, when the wildfire season begins in the West, the Forest Service starts collecting the names of firefighters available to travel out of Florida for wildfire assistance.

The Forest Service accepts new entrants for the list every season, totaling a few hundred statewide each year, fire standards administrator Kasie Crowe said.

Training varies depending on the responsibilities the firefighter will assume, but every volunteer must complete programs on safety measures.

Physical fitness capacity tests also vary: Some firefighters must complete a 2-mile test while carrying 25 pounds, while others must complete a 3-mile test while carrying 45 pounds.

"With the news that took place this weekend," Crowe said, "I'm sure they're going to be looking for some people."

Avery has deployed to states such as Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. To become a Forest Service ranger in Florida, he said, he completed 600 hours of training. The certification program involved lessons in wildland fires, emergency medical response, hazardous materials and structure fires.

It's strenuous work, but Avery said he and his fellow firefighters relish it.

Like others who devote their life to public safety, firefighters are part of a brotherhood.

The loss of Burch and Fulton two years ago in Florida brought nationwide support reminiscent of outpourings for fallen law enforcement officers, Karels said. The families of those who perished in Arizona will know similar compassion, he said.

"We feel for them," Karels said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families."

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson.

Florida firefighters feel the loss in Arizona wildfire tragedy 07/01/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 1, 2013 11:48pm]
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