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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Now another installment in our number of the year series. We asked our reporters and producers which numbers tell the most important stories of 2013. Today's number is a somber one: 34. That's how many wilderness firefighters died in the line of duty this year.

Some of those fatalities were isolated incidents, but one event captured the nation's attention, and as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, it's launched a larger conversation about the dangers firefighters face.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: That event unfolded in central Arizona on Sunday afternoon, June the 30th.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO COMMUNICATION)

SIEGLER: This is recently released radio traffic from the Yarnell Hill fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO COMMUNICATION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are preparing a deployment site and I'll give you a call when we are under the shelters.

SIEGLER: That call from the crew boss never came. He and 18 other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots didn't survive inside their emergency shelters when the fire blew over them.

CHIEF DAN FAIJO: Our entire crew was lost. We lost 19 people in this wildfire. One of the worst wildfire disasters that's ever taken place.

SIEGLER: In fact, it was the third-deadliest wildfire in American history. One recent report by the state partly faulted fire managers for putting the value of structures over firefighter's safety. For wildfire historians like John MacLean, this is a longer-term problem. There's too much pressure on firefighters to save homes and property.

JOHN MACLEAN: It is not the home in the woods protection service. It's the Forest Service.

SIEGLER: Yarnell Hill fire also ignited at a time of unprecedented draught and like in much of the southwest, natural wildfires have been snuffed out there for decades, meaning there was a lot of fuel to burn.

MACLEAN: You have hotter, more intense fires and you have homes that are defended with more aggression than you defend a forest and you have a very high-risk environment.

SIEGLER: But the fact is, firefighting has also become more sophisticated, which is why so many people in the profession were so shocked by Yarnell Hill. Technology has helped fire managers better calculate and manage risk. Doug Rideout of Colorado State University's West Fire Research Center is cautious about reading too much into this bad year. He says one large event doesn't make a trend, and there were a lot of factors on the ground that day in Arizona that day that were unique to that situation.

DOUG RIDEOUT: This was an unusual year and so part of this may be due to just the fact that it was an unusual year and part of it may be due to the growing sort of footprint of the wildland urban interface.

SIEGLER: That interface is where homes and even whole cities are being built into the forests and it's where most of today's high profile fires happen, Yarnell Hill included. And the homes in these zones are also being built safer. Rideout says that comes with some unintended consequences.

RIDEOUT: As we take measures to try to make the wildland urban interface a nice and safe place to be and to occupy, the incentive for it to grow gets even larger, so it's kind of a self-perpetuating situation.

SIEGLER: All of this has wildfire experts warning there could be a lot more Yarnell-type incidents in the future unless some big questions are addressed. Where should development happen and how, and should people living in these forests, not the federal government, shoulder more of the firefighting costs? Those questions become even more urgent when you consider that more than two-thirds of those areas, that wildland urban interface, is yet to even be developed in the West. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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