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Oklahoma man remembers 'honor' displayed by fallen Arizona firefighters

Nearly a month after the death of 19 hotshot firefighters in Arizona, Cliff Eppler, a 32-year veteran of the Oklahoma Forestry Services, is still thinking about those men, their families and his profession of wildfire fighting.
by Adam Kemp Modified: August 3, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: August 2, 2013

The horror is incredible to think about, but Cliff Eppler can't help but to imagine the scene.

Nineteen hotshot firefighters in Arizona trapped by flames so hot boulders cracked from the extreme temperatures.

A sudden downdraft of wind stoked fires around the elite crew, cutting off their escape and forcing the unit to shelter under emergency blankets as the fire overtook them.

Darrell Willis, division chief with the Prescott Fire Department, told an Arizona newspaper that the men fought and died as one.

“The voice of what actually happened, we'll never know,” he said. “I can tell you they died with honor. They stuck together.”

Nearly a month after the tragic accident, Eppler, a 32-year veteran of the Oklahoma Forestry Services, is still thinking about those men, their families and his profession of wildfire fighting.

“Those guys are kind of like the Green Berets of the forest service,” Eppler said. “If it can happen to them, it could happen to me.

“Reality checks in: This is dangerous.”

‘What I wanted to do'

Eppler said he often thinks back about his 16-year-old self driving down a county road near his home in Badger Lee close to the Arkansas border.

From the front seat of his pickup, he saw a lone firefighter in a field beating down a grass fire and decided to pull over to help.

The man handed him a fire swatter, a 15-inch-long and 8-inch-wide piece of rubber, and he told Eppler to get to swatting.

“I helped him beat that fire down,” he said. “I think I decided right then that this is what I wanted to do.”

Eppler has spent the past three decades fighting fires in Oklahoma and across the U.S.

Mark Goeller, Oklahoma fire management chief, said Oklahoma has between 150 and 200 wildland firefighters, Oklahoma's equivalent of Arizona's Hotshots, when all members of Forestry Services, Bureau of Indian Affairs and volunteers are counted.

Oklahoma has 42 units across the eastern portion of the state. Each unit operates a dozer and brush bumper and is on call 24 hours a day, providing fire protection and prevention in an assigned district.

‘We go everywhere'

They go through 40 hours of classroom and field training to ensure they are prepared for the rigors of the job.

Goeller said the training is the same across the U.S. to ensure that each unit is ready if another state calls for help with a large fire.

“We can go anywhere in the state that requests us,” Goeller said. “We are there when needed, and we go everywhere.”

Eppler and other units from Oklahoma helped fight widespread fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 that burned nearly 800,000 acres of forest land.

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by Adam Kemp
Enterprise Reporter
Adam Kemp is an enterprise reporter and videographer for the Oklahoman and Kemp grew up in Oklahoma City before attending Oklahoma State University. Kemp has interned for the Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Gazette and covered Oklahoma State...
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