The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

Local News

July 8, 2013

Arizona firefighter deaths hit home

TARBORO — The pain from the tragic wildfire that killed 19 firefighters June 30 in Arizona trickled all the way down to Edgecombe County and was felt by their fraternal brothers.

The Arizona firefighters were working on huge fire near Yarnell,  where fire  consumed 8,000 acres. An estimated 200 homes were destroyed in the United States's worst wildfire disaster in at least 30 years. Nineteen firefighters from the Prescott Fire Department died while battling the fast moving wildfire.

"When I heard about it, it immediately hit home for me," said Tarboro Fire Department Capt. Larry Whitehead. "Just think how devastated we would be if it would have happened here. They lost everybody in their (hotshot) department except two firemen. "That's a reminder of how dangerous our jobs are. But they didn't think about that. When that bell went off, they did what they were supposed to have done. Tthey responded to the fire."

Edgecombe County has 12 fire departments, including 11 volunteer departments. Tarboro is the only paid department. According to state law, volunteer fire departments must have at least 18 firefighters who meet the state fire marshal's qualifications.

Some of Edgecombe's volunteer fire departments struggle to keep those numbers. During the recent inspection, Princeville and Lewis Community volunteer fire departments were cited for not have the required trained personnel. Since the inspection, both departments have alleviated the problem.

"It's hard to maintain a 18-man volunteer fire department roster," said Edgecombe County Emergency Manager Butch Beach. "Overall, we do a good job. Because it is so hard to maintain that roster, it will be very hard on the county if we lost an entire department."

Conetoe is one of the elite volunteer fire departments in the county. Fire Chief Allen Dennie said he has been fortunate to keep his roster afloat. He can't fathom the thought of losing the entire department.

"The public really doesn't know how dangerous our job is," Dennie said. "When we go to a fire, it could be the last time our families see us. We put ourselves in danger every time we go out."

The 19 firefighters perished in the Arizona fire about two weeks after Dennie pleaded with Edgecombe County commissioners to not cut $6,000 from each volunteer fire department. Dennie's plea fell on deaf ears. Without the funds, Dennie said that lives, and property could be lost.

"They really don't understand that we put our lives on the line every time we are called out," he said. Six thousand dollars don't sound like a lot of money, but that's a lot for our small departments. We need that money for training and equipment. Proper training and equipment saves lives and property.

"Those 19 deaths are extremely tragic. The sad part about it, a few months from now, people are going to forget all about them. Those young men gave their lives to protect others. They gave the ultimate sacrifice."

Pinetops Fire Chief Steve Buress said for him hearing of the tragic deaths, his mind went back to the Texas explosion on April 17 that claimed the lives of 11 first responders.

"All I could say was, 'Not again," Buress said. "It just breaks my heart. The most important thing that we can do right now is pray for our comrades and pray for their families and hope that nothing like that happen here."


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