Shock and sadness over the deaths of 19 elite firefighters is being felt far beyond Arizona, where the Yarnell Hill fire continues to rage out of control. Firefighters consider themselves to be part of a "brotherhood" and when one hurts, they all do.
Captain Billy Writch of Bay County Fire Rescue knows how dangerous western wildfires can be.
Since 2000, he has used his vacation days to fight wild land fires in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Writch, 43, is certified to lead Type II Initial Attack crews to the front lines of wildfires.
"I like the tactics of it, I like the challenge of it," Writch said. "It's a very demanding job."
Writch said deployments last 14 to 21 days in some of the country's most treacherous terrain. Conditions often make fires unpredictable. "Fuel, weather, topography... those are the three things that drive wild land fire behavior," Writch said.
The 24 year veteran is well versed on firefighting tactics. He earned a Western Fire Deployment certification and is qualified to train other firefighters in wild land techniques. That training is essential to firefighters' survival but it doesn't eliminate the danger, he said. "We all are extremely aware that what we do is a dangerous job... you never know exactly what's going to happen," Writch said.
Writch said he got chill bumps when he learned the Prescott Fire Department's "Hot Shot" crew had been killed in the Central Arizona fire. "For nineteen firefighters to perish, I would say something had to really go wrong," Writch said. "There had to be some extreme fire behavior."
Despite the risks, Writch plans to continue his trips to the western states as long as he's physically capable and can make a positive contribution. "There's a lot of team work [and] camaraderie in it... a sense of we're doing something here to make a difference," Writch said.
Deployments mean long hours, extreme conditions and doing without the comforts of home, but it's something the veteran firefighter looks forward to. "We're in national parks, we're in very scenic places," said Writch. "I've seen things that people pay good money on vacation to see."
Writch keeps his gear in a perpetual state of readiness and can deploy within a couple of hours of getting the call. "I'm surprised I haven't gotten one already this year," he said.