Former firefighter seeks — and finds — names of rescuers 32 years later

Wildland fire crew
Wildfire crews, like this one, often work on rugged terrain in remote areas to clear fire breaks and other tasks to stop the spread of wildfires. Photo: DNR.

We all know that firefighting — structural or wildland — is dangerous. The deaths of 19 members of the Prescott (Arizona) Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots in early July while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, northwest of Phoenix, is a grim reminder of the hazards involved. Like other wildland firefighting agencies, DNR goes to great lengths to assure the safety of its fire crews. All the same, close calls do occur. Back in mid-July, this message from a former wildland firefighter arrived in DNR’s public information email box:

“In 1981 I worked on a 20-man crew based in Loomis, Washington. I am interested in finding out if you still have records of the crew that worked on the three-man team, the Mod Crew. I’m particularly interested in a three-man crew that had two guys who were nurses.

My reason is that I was on the Blue Mountain (Blue Lake) Fire in August of 1981. I volunteered to go and do a mop up of a lightning strike the night before. Unfortunately, the fire went up the mountain and our crew spent the whole day dealing with that fire. We had built a fire line that tailed into a rock slide. Since I was the more experienced crew member, my boss had me patrol the bottom of the line to spot anything on fire that rolled down the mountain side. I had to climb down a steep rock area to get to my patrol area. Long story short: I got hit with heat prostration right at the moment a tree that was on the wrong side of the fire line went up in flames. Two crew members leaned over the rock face, yelling at me to get out. Then I blacked out.      

Later, I woke up with the two nurses from the Mod crew carrying me between them. I couldn’t walk and we were far from the fire. I am hoping to find out the names of those two guys to ask, ‘How did I get out of that ravine?’

I was thinking of those 19 guys that lost their lives in the Arizona fire this year, and how I could have been a casualty just like them. I never did ask how they got me out of that spot on the mountain side. It’s a blank spot in my memory. I’ve been telling my sons for years about that fire and I’d like to fill in the gaps for them, and me.”

Joe Wagner

Well, good news. We were able to provide Joe with the names of the crew members, one a registered nurse and the other an Emergency Medical Technician, who assisted him.

Note: The fire described in this incident occurred the Sinlahekin Valley, a narrow, deep valley in Okanogan County that features sheer rock sidewalls rising from the valley floor. Much of the valley is within the Sinlahekin Wildlife Recreation Area, a popular hunting and fishing area managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and protected from fire by DNR and other agencies.

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