A firefighter was killed Sunday morning battling the massive Ferguson fire near Yosemite National Park, marking the second firefighting death in Mariposa County and the eighth fire-related death as more than a dozen wildfires rage across the state.
Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, was killed when he was struck by a tree while working with his crew to set a back fire — a tactic designed to limit a fire’s spread — on the east side of the fire, according to the National Park Service. He was treated at the scene, but died before he could be taken to a hospital. He was 33.
“The team at Sequoia and Kings National Parks is devastated by this terrible news,” parks Supt. Woody Smeck said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences go out to the firefighter’s family and loved ones. We grieve this loss with you.”
Hughes, who was originally from Hilo, Hawaii, had worked with the Arrowhead hotshots for four years. They are an elite crew of 20 firefighters based at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
“They go into the steepest of the steep, the most rugged of the rugged areas,” said Mike Theune, a spokesman with the parks. The Arrowhead team, one of two hotshot crews within the National Park Service, was working on a two-week rotation when the fatality occurred, he said.
Hillsides in the area are filled with trees that have been killed by five years of drought and a bark beetle infestation, according to state maps. The ground is carpeted with bone-dry pine needles, which are highly combustible. These conditions, combined with dry, hot weather, pose a huge risk to firefighters.
“The biggest overall risk is that these dead trees have an increased risk of falling — themselves and their limbs falling on firefighters,” Heather Williams, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman, told the Los Angeles Times several days after the Ferguson fire broke out.
The fire started July 13 and claimed a Cal Fire bulldozer operator’s life when a bulldozer tumbled down a hillside during the building of a defensive line. The blaze has left seven others injured as it has devoured more than 53,000 acres. Parts of Yosemite National Park, including Yosemite Valley, remain closed while thousands of structures are under threat.
More than 3,850 firefighters on the front lines have achieved 30% containment.