From: NPR Staff - NPR
Published September 30, 2013 05:45 AM

Extreme wildfires - the new normal?

It has been a deadly year for the people who fight wildfires. In total, 32 people have lost their lives fighting fires in 2013; the highest number in nearly 20 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

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Just one incident accounts for most of those deaths, the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. In June, the blaze blasted through a firefighting crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots; 19 of the 20 men died.

As people move farther into wildland areas and climate change turns landscapes into tinder, experts say the wildfire danger around the country will likely only grow. But there may be a lesson to learn from how the U.S. stifled an earlier fire crisis in urban settings.

The Yarnell Hill fire started from a lightning strike that sparked a brush fire. A fire hadn't hit the area in more than 45 years, and it was "primed to burn," according to a report released Saturday.

Powerful winds spread the flames across thousands of acres in a matter of hours, catching residents unaware. Residents had to leave their homes at a moment's notice.

Deployed between the flames and people's property were the Hotshots.

The crew members moved away from a safe, burned-out area and toward a ranch, another safe zone. But along the way, the winds shifted, and they became trapped by the fire. The crew leader radioed back that they were deploying fire shelters — a last resort.

"That was the last time that I heard my superintendent's voice," says Brendan McDonough, the lookout who was separated from the group and the sole survivor. The 21-year-old recalled the tension of that day in an interview with Arizona's Prescott Daily Courier.

Wildfire threatens house photo via Shutterstock.

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