By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - An investigation has been opened into the death of a firefighter who died while battling a blaze during a Texas heat wave while on his first assignment for a Utah-based "Hot Shot" fire team.
Officials told Reuters on Friday that proper procedures may not have been followed in the minutes leading up to the death on Thursday of 24-year-old Caleb Hamm, a member of the Bureau of Land Management's national "Hot Shot" firefighting team.
The Boise, Idaho native was serving his first assignment on the Salt Lake City-based team when he collapsed while working the fire line of the so-called 337 Fire in Palo Pinto County, west of Fort Worth.
"They know exactly what they're supposed to do, which is to get them off the line and get them medical treatment," said Don Smurthwaite, chief of external affairs for bureau at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "However, it doesn't appear that in this case that system worked.
Fire officials said Hamm died while he was being evacuated to a hospital. Investigators were expected to arrive in Texas on Friday.
"After the accident investigation is completed, I'm sure there will be some recommendations to help us prevent this type of thing from happening again," Smurthwaite said.
Smurthwaite said the "primary problem" that caused Hamm's death appears to be the extremely hot temperatures, which had reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
The fire was threatening 20 homes, but none were destroyed. On Friday afternoon, it had scorched 932 acres and was 75 percent contained.
DANGEROUS RECORD HEAT
Record heat has joined a historic drought to deliver an especially dangerous summer for Texans - and especially treacherous wildfires, experts said.
Last month, the Lone Star State recorded the hottest June in over a century, and the fourth hottest single month on record for the state, said Don Conlee, an atmospheric sciences professor at Texas A&M University.
Temperatures averaged 85.2 degrees, though the mercury soared past 100 several times across the state.
The early heat raises concerns for the rest of the summer, Conlee said.
"I think this is really significant," Conlee told Reuters on Friday. "June is not supposed to be amongst the hottest months. That's supposed to be July and August's territory."
The heat only exacerbates the record setting drought that continues across the state, which feeds the wildfires that put Texans and firefighters in harm's way.
"February through June was by far the driest on record, with a statewide average of 4.26 inches of rain," State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reports that 61 percent of the state was suffering either extreme or exceptional drought.
Almost all of the state 254 counties are under burn bans. Since November 2010, the Texas Forest Service said 14,000 separate fires have destroyed nearly 3.3 million acres.
Five major fires were burning on Friday across 6,000 acres, including the 337 fire in Palo Pinto County where Hamm died.
"These are dire conditions which have never before been reported since reliable record-keeping was started 116 years ago," Conlee said.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)