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Firefighter deaths send chill through NW as heat wave strikes

The loss of 19 firefighters in Arizona is sending a chill through the firefighting community in the Northwest. Fire season is about to begin here, ushered in by a heat wave sweeping the region.

Word spread fast among wildland firefighters in the Northwest.

“We are saddened, but (must) honor our fallen by continuing with the job at hand,” wrote the Hotshot crew out of Union, Ore., on Facebook.

“This is going to be on the minds of every firefighter in America,” said John Maclean, author of a book about the 2001 Thritymile Fire that killed four firefighters in north-central Washington.

Maclean says even as the job goes on, it will be hard for fire managers in the Northwest not to ask themselves certain questions.

“You know, ‘What about committing crews when conditions are as extreme as they are now? Is this something we should take into account?’ … These are difficult judgment calls,” he said.

This week, federal forecasters issued an update to their fire outlook maps. For July, parts of southwest Idaho and all but the very northwest tip of Oregon are highlighted in red.

Maclean says longer fire seasons and hotter, drier weather only increase wildfire risk both to firefighters and residents.

The Northwest has seen several tragedies in recent years, though safety rules have made deaths from fire itself relatively rare. Last August, 20-year-old wildland firefighter Anne Veseth was killed in Idaho by a falling tree. In 2008, nine firefighters from Grayback Forestry, based in Merlin, Ore., died in a helicopter crash in northern California.

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.