Standing at the site of a multi-acre grass fire Tuesday afternoon north of Brownwood, Fire Marshal Buddy Preston had plenty on his mind.
Such as, the number of trucks and firefighters at the site. Wind direction. Humidity. Downed power lines.
Fire trucks from multiple departments drove up and down County Road 135 along the perimeter of the fire, which by this point was contained. Some of the trucks drove across the blackened pasture as firefighters sprayed water from the big vehicles.
At that moment, Preston wasn't thinking about the 19 Arizona firefighters who were killed Sunday when their Hotshot crew was overrun by a fast-moving wildfire.
But Preston had an immediate reaction when a Bulletin reporter asked him for his thoughts on the Arizona tragedy.
"Shock, because so many of them were together and got overrun so fast," Preston said. "To have that many guys together — it's unthinkable."
Any grass or brush fire can be dangerous, "especially when it's hot," Preston said, and "we all" feel the loss of the Arizona firefighters.
"Every year we lose over 100 firefighters. This year seems to be on a record pace, unfortunately."
Brownwood Fire Chief Del Albright, who was also at the scene of the County Road 135 fire, agreed. "It doesn't have to be a big fire to be injured," Albright said.
The Arizona firefighter fatalities, Albright said, were "terrible. Our heart goes out to the town and to the department. It's going to be a bad year, I think, for firefighters."
The firefighters were highly trained, Albright said, but "nature kind of takes over once in awhile and you get caught. It's a very devastating feeling for all of us in the fire service."
The Granite Mountain Hotshots are based in Prescott, and only one of the 20-man crew survived when the wind-whipped wildfire overran them on a mountainside northwest of Phoenix, the Associated Press reported.
It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years and the deadliest single day for fire crews since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the firefighting world, "Hotshot" is the name given to those willing to go to the hottest part of a blaze. They are the best of the best, crews filled with adventure-seekers whose hard training ready them for the worst, the AP reported.
"It's a tragic event," Brownwood fire Lt. James LeMond said. "Those firefighters were among the best trained in the country, but you can never tell what a wildfire will do.”
LeMond said Brownwood doesn't have a Hotshot squad per se, but has a special fitness team of five trucks that can go out as a group and handle pretty much anything around this area.
Early firefighter Travis Eoff was shocked that so many firefighters perished at one time. "They had to hike in five miles off the main road with all their gear, then start working on the fire," Eoff said.
"I'll be really interested to see what transpires during the investigation. Having that many firefighters that close to each other, they must have been overrun by the fire pretty quickly.
"It's a really sad thing when so many brave men lose their lives like that. They died trying to protect a small town from burning up, so they died as heroes."
Eoff said in this part of Texas, firefighters can go pretty much anywhere with their firetrucks. "If the winds change on us, we can get out of there in a hurry if we have to," Eoff said.
Eoff said fires around here can be handled from the trucks, eliminating the need to carry a lot of gear in the field. "Those firefighters out west, they have it a lot tougher — carrying all their tools and equipment and food and water on their backs, then hiking to the fire before they even get to work," Eoff said.
Within hours Sunday, violent wind gusts turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable lightning-ignited forest fire into a death trap that left no escape, the Associated Press reported.
In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters unfurled their foil-lined emergency shelters, but those offer only limited protection when in the direct path of a raging fire.
Referring to the shelters the Hotshot crews use, Eoff said the Forest Service encourages their use. "We have a few guys at our department that carry them out," Eoff said. "I'm confident that the trucks will get us out of a bad situation if need be."
The Hotshot crews work for the U.S. Forest Service, according to the agency's website. They typically earn about $13 an hour, but their pay goes up during the summer fire season where they usually work 16-hour days. They must be physically fit, and part of their testing is hiking three miles with a 40-pound pack in 45 minutes or less.
They must be able to deploy anywhere in the country in two hours and they carry supplies and gear for at least two days in the field.
The Hotshot team based in Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel.
But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours as the wind kicked up.
A team of fire officials drawn from across the country by Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, arrived in the area Tuesday to find out exactly what went wrong.