On Monday the nation mourned the death of 19 members of an elite parachute "hot shot" fire crew in an Arizona wildfire. In Tennessee, the tragedy especially resonated with forestry workers who have routinely fought flames throughout the state.
In the last year and a half, Nathan Waters with the Tennessee Division of Forestry has been on the front lines of wildfires in locations such as English Mountain, a 2,000 acre fire in Hawkins County, a forest fire in Anderson County, and the massive resort cabin fire near Pigeon Forge.
Waters keeps photos of the beasts he battles, including one that has a smoke cloud in the shape of a fire-breathing dragon.
"This was just a smoke formation that was on the fire at Wears Valley. Do you see the dragon? There's a dragon in there. That blew my
mind," said Waters. "I keep these fire pictures on my desk. It's not that it is a
fantastic photo. It keeps it in your mind what can happen."
When Waters learned what happened to 19 firefighters in Arizona, his first thought was to check online photos to see what kind of fuels were feeding the fire.
"The whole area has a lot of chaparral (brush). There's a lot of grass in here, but this stuff (chaparral) has a lot of oil in it. And this stuff burns really hot and heavy with a toxic black smoke. When it's dry, it catches fire really easy," said Waters.
Tennessee's Division of Forestry has fortunately remained unscathed in recent years. Waters credits the lack of injury or death to tireless safety training and refresher courses. However, he knows the best training cannot always stop the beast from getting the best of fire crews.
"The job is inherently dangerous. The reports said they deployed their fire shelters, and that is your last ditch. It is like a pup tent that you can get in and hope the fire goes over you quickly. I can't imagine what the feeling is of the people that knew these 19 people personally. For the people that had worked with them, their instructors, the people they had been training with, it is really rough. It makes you think that much more when I'm on the fire, I want to be safe. I've got two little girls, I've got a wife, and I want to come home to them."
Waters says he'll keep a close watch on the investigation for any life-saving lessons.
"We've all said a prayer for their family. And all you hope is we can learn from it so we can prevent it in the future."
Generally speaking without referring specifically to the situation in Arizona, Waters said "hot shot" fire missions are usually carried out by younger firefighters due to the grueling physical requirements of the job. In some cases that also means often times those firefighters are not the most experienced members of the overall wildfire team.