Raleigh man says ‘Hotshots’ are like Marines in fighting wildfires

jspector@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2013 

Randolph Harrison, assistant county ranger for Wake County, served three years as a "hotshot" firefighter in northern California among his 32 years with the U.S. Forest Service.


The wildfire that killed 19 elite firefighters in Arizona on Sunday hit home with a Raleigh man who used to serve on one of the “Hotshot” crews himself.

In fighting wildfires, Hotshots are like Marines in combat, said Randolph Harrison, now assistant county ranger in Wake County for the N.C. Forest Service. Hotshots trek by foot into hard-to-reach places to stop fires by hand when other responses are not an option, Harrison said.

The 19 men killed in Arizona were part of the 20-member Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.

Harrison, 60, who served three years as a Hotshot in northern California during his 32 years with the U.S. Forest Service, said the crews often try to halt a blaze by clearing and burning trees and brush to form a fire line. Then, when the fire approaches, there is no more fuel for it to consume, he said. But sometimes, a fire can jump to the fuel on the other side of the crew, trapping them with flames on both sides.

“We never attack the head of a fire; we go along its edges,” Harrison said. “But what happened is the fire was moving in a direction, and then the winds changed completely and came back at them.”

The one surviving member of the Arizona crew hasn’t just lost his colleagues, but his family, Harrison said.

“They got up in the morning with them, they washed and showered with them, they exercised with them, they broke bread with them, they knew if they snored at night,” he said. “It’s hard enough when you lose a mother, father, sister or brother, but to lose 19, I just can’t imagine that.”

N.C. Fire Marshal Wayne Goodwin asked in a statement Monday that people pray for the families of the Hotshots.

“They fought to break the advance of that massive fire before more homes were lost, and to protect lives,” he said. “Though they ultimately lost their own lives, their heroism reflects the dedication exhibited by first responders every day.”

Sunday’s deaths came nearly one year after four members of the N.C. Air National Guard died in a C-130 crash while dropping flame retardant on a wildfire in South Dakota on July 1, 2012. The airmen, from the 145 Airlift Wing in Charlotte, were the first to die in 40 years of C-130s deployed with liquids to fight fires.

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