Article by John Sents and courtesy of the Elko Daily Free Press.
ELKO—Nevada Division of Forestry crew supervisor Jim Hunt was long trained it is sometimes necessary to run through a fire—not away from it—when the flames make a rapid run at you.
After more than 12 years with the division, this training was put to use on the West Basin fire, and it may have saved his life.
Hunt, 48, of Wells escaped the fire with second-degree burns to his face, elbows and knees after it charged on him in an isolated area. Hunt hunkered down and made the run through 6-foot-high flames and charred ground to get to safety.
“I probably pushed through 6 to 8 feet of active flame before I got to the cooler stuff. But it wasn’t very cool,” Hunt said. “I had that mindset that had been drilled into me — survive, survive, survive. I did what they teach us to do.”
The incident occurred at about 11 a.m. Saturday, the day after the fire started about five miles southeast of Jackpot. Hunt was scouting around the blaze for two NDF crews and had walked up a ridge when the fire rapidly changed direction due to shifting winds. Trapped on a small ridgeline between the fire and a “green” location with more fuels for the fire to grow into, Hunt chose to run through the fire.
“I had to make a decision real quick of whether I was going to live or die,” Hunt said. “I decided I was going to live, so I curled up and I pushed through the flame.”
Hunt said the initial push through the fire was like trying to run through a 6-by-8 foot box that was on fire. He estimated he had to run through 35 yards of “black burn” and continue 200 to 300 yards to get back to the NDF crews.
“If it weren’t for all the training I did, it would have been tough,” Hunt said. “I don’t know many people who see a wall of fire and say, ‘Yeah, I can walk through that now.’ I didn’t think I could do it before I did it.”
Hunt made it back to his crew on his own and pulled out a signal mirror to examine his burns.
“The skin on the left side of my face was melting and running down,” He said. “It reminded me of the icing on a cinnamon roll when it is heated in a microwave oven.”
Hunt was wearing protective safety glasses, which he believes may have saved his eyesight.
He was air-flighted to Magic Valley Hospital and later to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake City. He was treated for roughly 18 hours and released the next day.
There have been three injuries at the West Basin Fire, including Hunt’s injury and two cases of heat exhaustion, said NDF Northern Region Forester Tom Turk.
Turk said situations like Hunt experienced are rare for firefighters in this region. He said the fire behavior in the last two years has been extreme and unpredictable, due to weather and fuel conditions.
“We don’t like these things to happen, but obviously the training becomes second-nature to these guys when they are faced with adversity,” Turk said. “I believe Jim’s training and competency with these things kept him from greater harm.”
Hunt said he feels good and is getting around. In spite of the injuries he sustained, he said he is anxious to get back to work.
“In my heart, I could probably go back and do my job tomorrow,” Hunt said.
He said he is looking at the incident as an opportunity to improve training opportunities for his fellow firefighters. If placed in the same situation again, he said there is nothing he would have done differently.
“When people see us going through the training classes, we are trying to learn. We are not just taking the day off work,” Hunt said.
Hunt is an NDF fire crew supervisor at of the Wells Conservation Camp. He is also a captain on the Wells Volunteer Fire Department and participates with the Elko County Ambulance Service.
Elko Daily Free Press correspondent Elaine Swanson contributed to this article.