BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Coleen Vansant and her team of firefighters are trained to fight forest fires in Alabama.
When they watch news reports on the Arizona fire that took the lives of 19 of the toughest firefighters, they see more than sweeping images of flames from far away.
“We understand what happened those last few minutes,” Vansant said. “To know that they were watching that fire build up and then it turned on them and came back. It’s frightening to even think about.”
Vansant says the Hot Shot members are like the Navy Seals of firefighting. They are the first to arrive and the last to leave; nevertheless, they’re still human.
“Most fatalities are due to inhalation of extreme hot air,” Vansant said. “And the human lungs are just not equipped to handle a long time. There’s only so much the human body can take.”
A fire shelter is used as a last resort. It looks like a tin foil blanket with elastic sewn around the edges. In an emergency, firefighters will scrape away the grass in the shape of a circle to remove all flammable material in an area just big enough for a person to take cover.
The shelter is deployed from a small canvas container that is always strapped on the firefighter’s body. A firefighter then pulls the shelter over his entire body, making sure the edges are touching the ground.
Vansant says Arizona firefighters likely deployed these shelters, but the shelters will melt if they’re hit directly by flames. They are designed to protect a person from intense heat for a short period of time.
“A tragedy to one is a tragedy to all,” Vansant said.
She says watching what happened in Arizona has been tough for her and her team. That’s not stopping them from waking up every day ready to battle fires in Alabama.