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Legacy of a Utah firefighter's death: Heat stroke fatality spurs call for reforms

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

"We hope that not just the BLM but other agencies take a good, hard look at what happened," Lynnette Hamm said.

Taking those findings to heart is especially critical now that fire season is taking off in Utah and other states in the West. On Thursday night, a wild fire was raging near Stockton in Tooele County, burning several hundred acres.

A "Red Flag" warning also remains in effect until Friday night in the southern portion of Utah because of the extremely hazardous conditions that exist for wildfire potential.

Hales said if there are main policy changes implemented as a result of his findings, it ought to be that wildland firefighting agencies strictly adhere to work-rest guidelines when they are in extreme, environmental conditions. He also recommends agencies use a more thorough way of measuring heat that also includes looking at radiant heat and how much or how little the wind is blowing.

The agencies, he said, do a great job of investigating "near misses" in other lines of work, but not with the near misses of heat-related illnesses.

"They like to point out that there have only been two of these deaths, and that's good," Hales said. "But they've had a lot of near misses."

Hales said BLM records show less severe cases of heat-related illnesses and dehydration have been documented in 255 cases over the past 12 years. And heat-related illnesses are considered "sentinel health events" that are preventable. If they happen, his report says, it is a signal that preventative or therapeutic care may have been inadequate.

"When I look at these cases of health-related illnesses, they are misses and indicate you have a problem here," he said. "They look at it differently, and focus on the two. They don't see the misses, and sooner or later, someone is going down."

On a recent April afternoon, Lynnette and David Hamm visited the site where their son collapsed. They were met by an engine company of volunteer firefighters who wanted to pay tribute to Caleb Hamm and support his family in their efforts to find out why a young, a fit man had to die that day.

Lynnette Hamm is crying. She will later recall how her son was inextricably linked to wild places with grass and trees, streams and mountains. She knows he was comfortable with death — he called it the circle of life — but it is tough on the family left behind.

"We want his story to get out so other lives may be saved. We cannot let his death be in vain," she said.

"When a firefighter says they don't feel well, they need to have that immediate chance for medical treatment. That golden moment. That moment was denied Caleb. It can't be for anyone else."

Contributing: John Hollenhorst

Email: amyjoi@desnews.com
Twitter: amyjoi16

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