They died to save our forest. So it would be a terrible oversight to forget them. In today’s Roundup, we recall the tragic maelstrom of courage and miscalculation that led to the deaths of six firefighters, working heroically to save first the homes of strangers and then one another.
We should all memorize their names, for they died to protect us: James Denny, James Ellis, Sandy Bachman, Curtis Springfield, Joseph Chacon, Alex Contreras.
Bachman was a prison supervisor, the rest were Perryville Prison inmates — brave men turning their lives around by risking them on behalf of others.
The Forest Service has worked hard to extract the tactical lessons necessary to reduce the odds of another such tragedy. The brave and professional firefighters who protect every community in Rim Country from destruction as a matter of routine have done everything they can to make the terrible sacrifice of those six lives meaningful: Redesigned the fire shelters, improved communications and understood the almost unimaginable threat posed by the sudden collapse of a convective plume over a big fire.
But have we done our share? Have we accepted our responsibility and resolved to make the necessary sacrifices to prevent another such holocaust of flame and terror?
Alas: Not really. The story of those terrible events offers two great lessons for those of us who will never wield a chain saw on the fire line.
First: We cannot continue to set our homes in thickets of trees, counting on the courage of firefighters to save us when the flames finally find us.
That’s why we must all provide support as the Forest Service struggles to find the money needed to create fuel breaks around every community in Rim Country.
If such firebreaks had existed in 1990, the Perryville fire crew would not have been working to create a narrow fire line to protect Bonita Creek Estates. Their hastily scraped out line was surrounded by thick forest, so when the collapsing convection created 60 mile-per-hour winds, the crew was instantly surrounded by fire.
Unfortunately, despite the Forest Service’s prodigious efforts to rough out buffer zones around most of the Rim Country, the danger remains acute.
Reinvent the timber industry
We hope that political and community leaders in this region will redouble their efforts to complete that vital work and support the current effort to use a reinvented timber industry to thin millions of acres of badly overgrown forest. We hope that leaders will also explore and support some additional means of providing money to create and maintain these buffer zones.
We hope that individual homeowners will honor the every day courage of the wildland firefighters who risk their lives on our behalf by making sure they live in firewise communities — with adequately cleared lots and the simple fixes that can prevent the spread of fires across their property.
The second deep lesson of the Dude Fire cuts even deeper. Today’s Roundup details the terrible, selfless courage of those Perryville prisoners who faced the inferno with nothing but laminated aluminum fire shelters.
By all accounts, the dangerous, demanding work that the Perryville fire crew did played a big role in helping the crew members turn their lives around. The transformation from troubled troublemakers into men we must admire showed in how they faced that fire.
James Denny, in trouble all his life, was fleeing the fire when he saw guard Sandra Bachman struggling to open her fire shelter. So he stopped, returned to her and helped her open up her shelter. Only then did he crawl into his own shelter.
Both Denny and Bachman died in the hellfire. We will never know whether Denny would have survived had he focused only on saving himself — but we know that he demonstrated his own transformation, his redemption — in his final actions.
But that’s not all. During the firestorm, Denny left his shelter, which filled with smoke and flame as the glue between the layers turned to gas and caught fire.
Apparently, Joseph Chacon heard Denny’s cries and left his own shelter to save his fellow crew member. Later, they found Chacon’s body lying protectively on top of Denny.
Chacon had apparently also pulled his own shelter over his back to ward off 800-degree flames.
We weep for such courage, even as it lifts us up.
We know they died for us and for love and courage and one another.
So we will never forget them, nor shirk our duty to them, secured at so terrible a price.