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Local officials hope to learn from Arizona wildfire tragedy

OLYMPIA — The tragic deaths of 19 wildfire fighters in Arizona has sent shock waves around the country.

shelterNow fire officials in Washington state plan to take a closer look at their safety policies to make sure a tragedy like that doesn’t happen here.

Back in 2001, a blaze in Eastern Washington killed four firefighters; they, too, were trying to ride out the firestorm in portable fire shelters.

That tragedy forced a complete redesign of the shelters.

The top man at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources said the new shelters are good, but even they aren’t going to save lives when the inferno is too intense.

Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has a unique perspective into wildfires. He’s not only in charge of the state agency that monitors and responds when wildfires burn out of control; he also spent more than three decades as a volunteer firefighter in Eastern Washington.

“You take notice of it because if you’re close to the fire at all, even a couple hundred feet, there’s a lot of radiant heat coming off the fire,” said Goldmark.

Fire shelters are meant to keep out the intense heat and save lives, but they aren’t perfect.

“It’s a last line of defense,” Goldmark said. “It may or may not sustain you during the period of a burn over.”

The new shelters were developed after the 2001 tragedy in Eastern Washington where four firefighters died in a burn near Winthrop.

“They deployed shelters but the shelters did not protect them and as a result of that, there was a new generation of fire shelter that has been in use since 2003 which has greater reflective capacity and greater insulating ability,” said Goldmark.

Disasters like those haunt officials who send men and women into the wild to protect life and property. Goldmark hopes to learn from the Arizona tragedy. His agency plans to review what happened there to see if any local policy changes need to protect firefighters here.

“Of course, we’ll be looking for the after-action investigation and what the results are and if they can give us any cause to change our accepted procedures,” Goldmark said. “I want to underscore the importance that our firefighters are trained to have lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones.”

Forecasters are gearing up for what could be a busy wildfire season in Washington state. Right now they’re worried about the Fourth of July and illegal fireworks that could spark the next big wildfire.

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