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.
“That was an incredible experience,” he said. “We were fighting fires and worrying about grizzly bears all at the same time.”
Since 2005, Oklahoma Forestry Services has fought fires in 71 of 77 counties and has received fire help from 33 different states.
Through working with other units across the country, Eppler said everyone involved with wildland firefighting forms a unique brotherhood.
“When you're out there fighting a fire, you are each other's life line,” he said. “Guys get especially close. So when you hear about something like what happened in Arizona, you can't imagine. They just lost so many.”
‘We gotta go'
Dylan Suson said he had no plans to make fighting fires his business.
Suson, 26, was comfortable being a manager at Walmart near his hometown of Stillwell.
But when he hired a retired firefighter to work at his store, the stories the man told became the favorite part of his day.
“He would tell me these stories that just had me on the edge of my seat,” he said. “He told me that he couldn't have dreamed up a better job, and that really stopped me in my tracks. Nobody says that about their job.”
Suson quit his job and joined the Forestry Department last year.
He said the experience has been everything he could've hoped for from Day 1.
“The first couple of fires I went out on, I was real nervous,” he said.
“But I think that's a good thing; that keeps you on your toes. I'm learning a lot and loving every minute of it.”
Suson said he didn't expect certain details of his job to be so rewarding. As a ranger, he spends a lot of time interacting with Oklahoma landowners and really getting to know them.
“We talk with them and inform them what we do and let them know that you'll be there for them,” he said. “They put a lot of trust in me, and that's something I don't take lightly.”
After hearing about the 19 fallen hotshots in Arizona, Suson said he couldn't let such a horrible event squelch his newfound passion.
“It's terrible to think that could happen to guys who are so experienced,” he said. “Now I admit that if I had to go out on Western detail like those guys were on, it would scare me to be honest.”
Eppler said he sat his whole unit down to talk after the news from Arizona made it their way.
He wanted to reassure them that this was just a freak accident but remind them that their line of work is still risky.
“Of course you start thinking about it, but this is our job,” he said. “When we are called upon, we gotta go.”