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Firefighters' Deaths Show the Heroics Of an Elite Group

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THEY come from tiny towns across the West - Clatskanie, Ore.; McCall, Idaho; Hamilton, Mont.

Many are just college kids, out to earn money in the summer in a job that has been called ``the best in the world'' but is also one of the most dangerous. Others have spent entire careers rappelling from helicopters or parachuting into pumpkin-tinted infernos to help save a forest or family cottage from fire.

Last week 14 elite firefighters - ``the best of the best'' - perished in a blaze on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo. This week, their comrades, donning Nomex suits and a renewed sense of the perils of their profession, were back on the front lines across the American West.

It promises to be a hot summer. Already, more than 1.3 million acres have burned in the United States in 1994 - almost double the amount charred last year at this time.

With conditions in many Western states dry and undergrowth steel-wool thick, officials are bracing for a major test of the nation's firefighting capacity.

``It has just started so early this year,'' says Janelle Hill of the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts from Boise, Idaho. ``It could be an extreme fire season.''

It already has been in one sense: The tragedy near Glenwood Springs represented the biggest loss of firefighters since 1953, when 15 were killed in the ``rattlesnake fire'' in California.

Like then, this year's tragedy stemmed in part from freakish weather conditions. Fifty-one firefighters were battling a seemingly innocuous blaze when winds accompanying a cold front hissed into their canyon and the area ``just blew up,'' as one survivor put it. Though potentially dangerous gusts were forecast, crews say there is no way such extreme conditions could have been predicted. Even so, questions persist.

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