By Emery Cowan
Herald Staff Writer
Two weeks after 19 firefighters were killed battling an Arizona wildfire, hundreds of local firefighters, residents and train passengers gathered to pay tribute to the lives lost in the blaze.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad put on the tribute event in coordination with local firefighting agencies. Firefighters, law-enforcement officials and railroad workers stood at attention as the 8:45 a.m. train pulled out of the station and came to a stop under an enormous American flag suspended by two ladder trucks. The crowd fell silent as the train blew its whistle 19 times in honor of each member of the hot-shot crew. Firefighters held their attention until the last of the train's cars rolled past.
“Anytime one of us individually or an agency goes through a crisis or a loss we all suffer,” said Dan Noonan, chief of Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. “There is a bond between emergency-service workers that is hard to explain.”
Noonan said he was touched by the incredible turnout at the event.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge donated $19 from each ticket sold for the 8:45 a.m. train to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which will distribute the money directly to the families of the fallen firefighters.
The train had about 300 passengers, which is 20 percent more than a usual Sunday, railroad owner Al Harper said.
He estimated that the donation from train tickets and money collected at the tribute event would total well more than $6,000. His goal is to raise $10,000.
The train doesn't do many tribute events, but this tragedy “struck close to home,” Harper said. The devastating impacts of the Missionary Ridge Fire are still fresh in many people's minds, and the train constantly deals with wildfire concerns. Harper also said his son is an accredited wildland firefighter who is part of the train's fire protection patrol.
“I thought it was extremely emotional, I saw some firefighters with tears in their eyes,” Harper said. “I'm proud to be part of an event that paid tribute to the Arizona 19.”
As the train rolled by, Noonan said his thoughts were on the future and the need to prevent a similar incident from happening again.
“Where we have to go from here is, we have to honor their lives by learning the reasons why they died and try to make those (procedural) corrections so hopefully this won't happen to anyone else,” Noonan said. “When we understand it (we have to ask) do we need to make changes in what we are doing and how we are fighting wildland fires.”
According to a briefing paper published by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center this year, about 11 percent of all wildland fighter fatalities since 1926 have been caused by entrapment, or being caught in the fire. The average number of entrapment fatalities each year has fallen since 1926, even as firefighters are battling bigger, more destructive fires.
That makes the Arizona tragedy even more significant, said Ryan Ehlers, the wildland coordinator with Durango Fire & Rescue Authority.
“If anything over last couple decades, the fire service has become more conservative with our safety and our lives, just with past incidents,” Ehlers said. “That's why this one is especially hard.”