The Arizona wildfire that killed 19 elite firefighters this past weekend is being called the largest loss of emergency personnel since 9/11. And the deaths are hitting home here in BC where memories of the 2003 Kelowna wildfires are flooding back.
“My first thoughts were how similar that could have been to what happened to us here, because we had people trapped the same way, and how sorry I felt that it happened," says former Kelowna Fire Chief Gerry Zimmerman.
"I’m thinking it was just by the grace of God and luck that we didn’t encounter the same thing."
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were known as the best firefighting team in the United States, specializing in fighting blazes on the front line. They lost the battle when the flames swept towards them and they rushed to take cover in their emergency shelters.
“Firefighters, law enforcement officers – they run towards the danger. And so, we are heartbroken about what happened,” said US President Barack Obama during a speech in Tanzania.
Back in 2003, hundreds of homes burnt to the ground, but there was no loss of life. Yet Zimmerman recalls there were many close calls.
“We had a bunch of guys trapped in Kettle Valley. While they knew there was a big empty field there, they knew that if anything happened they could get to this green field and what they actually did was they got to that field, got under their trucks and the fire just blew by them.“
Now many first responders from BC will pay their respects while they head down to Arizona to attend the funeral for those lost in Yarnell, Arizona.
“When you see people like that die and lose their lives because you guess that’s going to happen from time to time, but that doesn’t make it any easier. It still hurts just as much.
-- With files from Jen Zielinski