Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watched a growing wildfire that later swept over and killed the crew of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Ariz.

Photo courtesy of Juliann Ashcraft • Associated Press,

Arizona tragedy: The dangers of building near wilderness

  • July 3, 2013 - 6:40 PM

After Sept. 11, 2001, Americans saluted the heroism of the first responders who died running up the twin towers’ staircases as office workers sought to escape. On Monday, the country once again had to mix admiration with grief as it mourned the deaths of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Ariz., the greatest single loss to any fire department since 9/11. As residents ran from their burning homes, the firefighters ran toward the flames that would soon overtake them, trying to subdue the blazing chaparral.

The 19 who died were elite firefighters trained to battle big blazes, so-called hotshots. But a sudden shift in the wind, a quirk of the terrain or something else resulted in an inferno so intense that they could not escape, and emergency shelters saved none of them.

About this time every year, men and women like these risk their lives to protect the homes and livelihoods of Americans on the edge of wilderness. Their willingness to sacrifice should prompt the rest of us to take steps to minimize the risks as much as sensibly possible.

As more people move into former areas of wilderness, the annual fight against wildfires becomes more dangerous and expensive. Climate change may exacerbate the challenge, as changing temperatures reduce snowpacks, dry out the land and affect the ecology in ways that are less predictable. As on the coasts, which have to adapt to rising sea levels, people in America’s hinterlands must make smart choices about where they live and how to develop. People who settle astride untamed nature take on natural risks. But often others share in the costs of their risk-taking — certainly with mountains of tax money for disaster relief, sometimes even with lives. Instead of encouraging ever-increasing development in increasingly risky places, states, localities and the federal government have to think ahead.

Even with the best of planning, the country will always depend on a few men and women with grit and skill willing to protect their communities — professionals who will run toward the flames. Monday’s terrible loss should remind us of the debt we owe them.

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