Fayetteville, N.C. — Many North Carolina Forest Service firefighters head out West every year to help put out wildfires, so the deaths Sunday of 19 members of an elite firefighting unit in an Arizona fire gave them pause.
"It makes us all step back and think and take a breath," John Mewborn said Monday.
A forest ranger based in Fayetteville, Mewborn has fought fires from peat bogs in North Carolina to canyons in the Southwest. He last fought a western wildfire in Washington state in 2009.
"It can be very erratic, very unpredictable," he said.
In the flatland South, he said, crews build fire breaks with bulldozers to help contain wildfires. Most places out West are too mountainous for that, so they build breaks by hand with shovels.
"You're taking a lick, taking a step, and everybody behind you is basically doing the same," he said.
Mewborn recalled a lightning-sparked June 2011 fire in Cumberland County that destroyed hundreds of acres of forest and three houses. Two thunderstorms formed on either side of that fire, and wind direction changed suddenly, he said.
"We can have, right here in North Carolina, right in this district, the same kind of conditions they're dealing with in Arizona," he said.
The deaths of the 19 Hotshot firefighters, who are trained and work long hours in extreme conditions, remind him how perilous his line of work can be.
"They're not there because they have to be. They're there because they wanted to be, which makes the sacrifice they made even more special," he said. "We try to take the information that comes from it and learn from it so we can take care of ourselves."
North Carolina has one Hotshot fire crew, which is based in Asheville.