Skilled firefighters mourn loss of 19 in Arizona

Hand crews across nation train for wildfires

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In Florida and across the nation, firefighters who are highly skilled in fighting wildfires form what are known as hand crews.

A hand crew is a 20-person team of firefighters trained to build a perimeter around wildfires.

Over the weekend, 19 hand crew members in Arizona died while trying to stop a wildfire from spreading.

Annaleasa Winter, of the Florida Forest Service, said they were an elite group of frontline firefighters who will be remembered for their skill and courage.

"It's just devastating, absolutely," Winter said of the tragedy. "Very horrible situation when you have such a great loss. So many young people, talented. It's just a shame."

Winter said the Florida Forest Service has four hand crews in the Sunshine State. She said they are on standby just in case they are needed to fight the wildfire in Arizona.

Winter said local hand crews train every year for these types of scenarios, through instructional videos, proper communication during an emergency, a physical fitness test, and shelter deployments, similar to what the 19 firefighters tried to do to save themselves.

Eighty-three firefighters died last year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. This year the number was at 43 before this happened. It's a deep loss among the firefighter community.

Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters, says he hasn't seen an event this tragic when it comes to the loss of firefighters since 9/11.

"They are out there doing some of the hardest work in firefighting and some of the most dangerous," Wyse said. "So we are praying for their families and our brothers out there, and hopefully the answers will come out and hopefully this won't happen again."