Death of firefighters leaves families in mourning and officials searching for answers

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 7:04 a.m. MDT

"We're all just devastated," said Cannon, adding she last saw her husband May 19 when he returned from flight training in Britain. "It's very heartbreaking for our whole family. But as this has happened, it's become clear to me how important he was to people."

Vicki Minor of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in Boise said Chambless was a volunteer at the foundation who loved working with the children of firefighters who have been killed or injured fighting fires.

She said the job of a pilot fighting fires is "horribly dangerous," but that they save many lives on the ground through their efforts. Chambless, she said, loved the work and will be greatly missed.

Gower expressed his condolences to Tompkins' and Chambless' families on behalf of the community of Iron County. He said the loss extended to many.

"We do appreciate their service and we're very sad for their loss," Gower said. "It impacts us all — all of the emergency service workers from firefighters to law enforcement. It's tough."

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar also offered the support of Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management for the men's families.

"On behalf of the entire Interior family, I extend my deepest condolences to the families, friends and co-workers of the two courageous men who gave their lives on Sunday," Salazar said in a statement.

The incident was the third plane crash in Utah in eight days. A single-engine aircraft crashed in a remote area of Kane County last Tuesday, killing all four people on board. Four others died in the early morning hours of May 26, when a single-engine Cessna crashed near the St. George Municipal Airport.

Sunday's incident means 15 people have been killed in plane crashes in Utah this year, compared to 11 in all of 2011, according to statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Monday, two air tankers were grounded at the Color Country Interagency Fire Center in Cedar City and Gower said they would not take part in firefighting efforts for the time being.

"These tankers are critical," he said. "They are a tool (firefighters) rely on. … (The) only way they're fighting the fire in the air is the helicopter. They do a great job, but are not quite as effective as the airplane."

Chris Hanefeld of the BLM in Nevada said 235 fire personnel were working on the fire Monday. Crews were hoping to have the blaze fully contained by Sunday, but were still working through a "red flag" warning.

"The winds are picking up (and) we expect wind gust as high as 45 to 50 miles an hour," Hanefeld said. "When winds shift, everything gets erratic. We're really watching weather as we try to get control of this thing."

Dealing with the death of Tompkins and Chambless has rocked the firefighting community that Hanefeld compared to an extended family.

"You may not know someone personally, but anytime someone is injured or killed like this it effects us all," he said. "When we got the word yesterday … that really had an impact on us, but we're staying focused. We're working on this fire, we're going to get it controlled and we're going to get it contained. Our hearts just go out to their family."

Contributing: Alex Cabrero and The Associated Press

email: emorgan@desnews.com

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