On June 30 nineteen firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Yarnell, Arizona. This tragedy was the worst for firefighters and first responders since 9/11. According to USA Today the Yarnell Hill fire was “the worst wildland firefighting tragedy since 25 were killed in the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles in 1933.” Yesterday the bodies of the nineteen firefighters returned home to Prescott, Arizona.
The disaster reminds us that firefighting is one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the fatality rate for firefighters is about 2.5 times as high as the fatality rate for the rest of the workforce. Until the Yarnell Hill fire, the fatality rate for firefighters had dropped over the past few years. The annual number of firefighters killed on the job in 2009-2011 (2011 is the most recent year available for the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries) was about 33% lower than the average from 2003-2008. The following chart indicates year-by-year fatality totals for firefighters from 2003 to 2011.
The chart shows that the recent improvement in firefighter safety is due to a 50% reduction in traffic-related fatalities. Firefighters face the risks of fire, explosions, falling objects and harmful and toxic substances once they arrive on the scene, but many firefighters lose their lives in traffic accidents speeding to the fire. From 2003-2008, traffic related fatalities accounted for about half of all deaths of firefighters on the job. Since 2009, traffic related fatalities have accounted for 35% of firefighter deaths. Finally, the chart indicates that the loss of nineteen lives in Yarnell is more than the annual average number of firefighter deaths while fighting fires (non-traffic fatalities) over the past three years.
While reductions in traffic accidents involving firefighters have saved lives over the past few years, the Yarnell Hill fire reminds us that firefighters have one of the riskiest jobs in the U.S. workforce. Every day firefighters face the risk of serious injury or death while protecting others from harm’s way.