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Hagerstown firefighter shocked by deaths of firefighters in Arizona blaze

July 03, 2013|By DAN DEARTH | dan.dearth@herald-mail.com
  • Stephen and Cheri Grady visit a memorial along the fence outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station, Tuesday, July 2, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz. Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, were killed Sunday when a windblown wildfire overcame them north of Phoenix. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s. Tuesday, July 2, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz.
By Julie Jacobson / Associated Press

A Hagerstown firefighter with experience battling wildfires in five Western states said he was shocked when he heard that 19 firefighters died Sunday combating a wind-driven blaze near Phoenix.

Fire Apparatus Operator Bob Maurer said in addition to having 18 1/2 years of experience as a firefighter with the city, he has tackled assignments fighting wildfires in California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Oregon.

“It just makes me hug my kids a little tighter,” Maurer, of Waynesboro, Pa., said Tuesday. “This is one of the only jobs where you don’t know if you’re going to come home at night.”

The 19 firefighters who died were trapped by the fire near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Fire officials said the firefighters tried in vain to deploy their fire shelters, which are tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat.

On Tuesday, about 500 firefighters were on the scene, with more on the way. The fire has burned 8,400 acres, or about 13 square miles, as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperature soaring.

Officials said lightning triggered the blaze.

Sunday marked the nation’s largest loss of life for fire crews since Sept. 11, 2001.

Maurer, 47, said he has been deployed to fight fires in the West through the Pennsylvania Department of Forestry. He said he wasn’t sure Tuesday whether he would be called to battle the fire in Yarnell.

When a regional unit gets the call, they board a plane in Harrisburg, Pa., and fly to an airport near the wildfire, Maurer said. Sometimes, they’re taken to a hotel or camp, but at times, they’re driven directly to the scene.

Wildfire crews have to complete arduous training to maintain their certification, Maurer said. Some of the requirements include walking three miles with a 45-pound load in 45 minutes.

He said the high level of physical fitness is necessary because wildfire crews often are at the scene for 16 hours at a time. In addition, they have to traverse difficult terrain while using strenuous methods of firefighting, such as digging trenches to halt a fire’s advance.

“It’s rough,” said Maurer, noting water tankers can’t reach the isolated location of wildfires. “Your knees are really worn out. It’s definitely a young man’s game.”

Maurer said wildfire firefighters are away from their base camps for long stretches of time. As a result, they typically carry about 35 pounds of equipment and several gallons of water when they’re in the field.

“When you leave camp in the morning, you might not see it for another two or three days,” he said.

Maurer said he earned an associate degree in architectural engineering from Penn State. He said he got tired sitting behind a desk, and quit that profession to become a firefighter.

He said he loves fighting fires despite the risk.

“People think we’re crazy,” he said. “But it’s a good time.”

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