Firefighters' Deaths Show the Heroics Of an Elite Group

THEY come from tiny towns across the West - Clatskanie, Ore.; McCall, Idaho; Hamilton, Mont.

Many are just college kids, out to earn money in the summer in a job that has been called ``the best in the world'' but is also one of the most dangerous. Others have spent entire careers rappelling from helicopters or parachuting into pumpkin-tinted infernos to help save a forest or family cottage from fire.

Last week 14 elite firefighters - ``the best of the best'' - perished in a blaze on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo. This week, their comrades, donning Nomex suits and a renewed sense of the perils of their profession, were back on the front lines across the American West.

It promises to be a hot summer. Already, more than 1.3 million acres have burned in the United States in 1994 - almost double the amount charred last year at this time.

With conditions in many Western states dry and undergrowth steel-wool thick, officials are bracing for a major test of the nation's firefighting capacity.

``It has just started so early this year,'' says Janelle Hill of the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts from Boise, Idaho. ``It could be an extreme fire season.''

It already has been in one sense: The tragedy near Glenwood Springs represented the biggest loss of firefighters since 1953, when 15 were killed in the ``rattlesnake fire'' in California.

Like then, this year's tragedy stemmed in part from freakish weather conditions. Fifty-one firefighters were battling a seemingly innocuous blaze when winds accompanying a cold front hissed into their canyon and the area ``just blew up,'' as one survivor put it. Though potentially dangerous gusts were forecast, crews say there is no way such extreme conditions could have been predicted. Even so, questions persist.

Should the fire have been suppressed sooner? How much weather information was available and was it relayed to the firefighters on the mountain? Should the crews have been deployed differently, knowing strong winds were possible? A federal investigative team is asking such questions.

One question that inevitably arises is the dangers of building in remote areas. Across the West, more homes are going up amid the aspen and ponderosa pine, raising the risk of fire and loss and affecting firefighting strategies.

Developments in rural areas prohibit natural and prescribed burns, resulting in a buildup of fuel. When blazes do break out, it becomes a priority to suppress flames quickly. Yet this can be dangerous, since firefighters can't just pull back from a line, knowing that only trees will suffer.

The mere sight of flames licking close to homes in picturesque Glenwood Springs, as well as the human loss, has once again made people in this state think about how and where they build.

They have good reason to ponder. Molotov-cocktail conditions still exist in parts of the West. One reason is a two-year dry spell followed by heavy winter snows, resulting in an especially heavy accumulation of fuel on the forest floor.

Last week, 160,000 acres were burning in nine Western states. By late Saturday that was down to 32,000 acres in six states. The decline has given firefighters a needed respite. The emotions are running deepest among the elite smoke jumpers and ``hot-shot'' crews, whose ranks most of the Colorado victims were from. They are a close-knit fraternity whose heroics often go unrecognized until tragedy strikes.

``It definitely is a club - something to belong to,'' says Steve Nemore, a smoke jumper based in Boise, Idaho.

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