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Deadly Arizona wildfire hits home for some Kentucky firefighters

By: Brittany Pelletz Email
By: Brittany Pelletz Email


The deadly fire in Arizona hits close to home for firefighters in Rowan County. Volunteer firefighters at fire state Route 377 lost two of their own firefighters to a wildfire 14 years ago.

"It flooded a lot of emotions back from our own experience here in Kentucky," says Danny Blevins, Director of Rowan County EMS.

27-Year-old Kenneth Nickell and 30-year-old Kevin Smith were killed in the line of duty while battling a wild fire in the Island Fork area of Rowan County in 1999.

"The challenges for that day, a lot of it was the weather factor such as wind and relative humidity. Changing of winds which basically cuts off the firefighters from their escape route," adds Blevins.

Blevins says that the 19 firefighters killed in Arizona were among the most highly trained and had the best equipment.

"If that kind of fire can overwhelm and entrap a crew such as that...
that's the reason it's so important that we don't let our guard down here in Kentucky," Blevins says.

Firefighters in Rowan County say they have stepped up their training following the tragedy in 1999. They've also invested in new equipment such as the fire shelters. Fire shelters are used as a last resort for firefighters in the case of a burn over situation. While the fire shelters were not enough to save the Arizona firefighters, Blevins says the fire shelters are considered some of the safest types of firefighting equipment.

"We have these today but in '99, these were unavailable to volunteers who lost their lives on the Island Fork Fire," Blevins adds.

Nickell and Smith's memory lives on at the Route 377 fire station in Rowan County. There is a memorial honoring the two fallen firefighters at the site of the fire in Island Fork. Their names are also painted on a trailer that is used by the fire department as a mobile fire education lab. Firefighters spend time traveling to places throughout the community to educate people about the dangers of wildfires and what they can do to help prevent them.

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