Battling wildfires is incredibly difficult and dangerous. Every year, workers with Tennessee's Division of Forestry volunteer for assignments in western states, and they know the challenges all too well.
Forestry technician Mike Tummins had his own close call with a wildfire in the late 1990s out west.
"The wind was blowing, ash was falling. It was very smokey. The visibility was very poor, and all of a sudden the wind changed," Tummins said.
Just like the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew that was fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona when 19 members died, Tummins reached for his fire shelter.
Those fast, shifting winds are the threat that keeps wildfire crews on their toes, and the emergency fire shelters are a last resort to keep them out of danger.
"I am sure out there when they used these, at the time, the wind was probably blowing 30, 40 miles per hour. And it's kind of like a kite. You've really got to hang onto it," Tummins said.
The fire shelters deploy within 25 seconds, and they look somewhat like duct work to an air system. The aluminum material deflects some heat, but temperatures inside are still soaring.
"A lot of times, you have to just cover your mouth, and lay your head straight down and breathe close to the ground," Tummins said.
Weather conditions out west are difficult to overcome.
"The humidity is from maybe two percent to 12 percent. When you sweat, you don't even see your sweat. You can get dehydrated in just a few hours," Tummins said.
That's why training is so intense. Even Tennessee firefighters who want to volunteer out west must pass a physical endurance test first.
"It's walking very fast for three miles with 45 pounds on my back in 45 minutes," Tummins said.
Only the toughest are considered Hotshots, and that's why Tummins is still shocked over their deaths.
"My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those firefighters out there," Tummins said. "Whatever happened out there went awry."
The training to fight these wildfires is ongoing, and crews do inspect their shelters for tears routinely.
The Southeast has more wildfires each year, but with the thick vegetation, many streams and higher humidity, they are usually contained much quicker.
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