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Firefighters Killed in Yarnell, Arizona Wildfire

4:39 PM, Jul 1, 2013   |    comments
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PRESCOTT Ariz. (USA TODAY) - The fast-moving wildfire that killed 19 firefighters Sunday is now more than quadruple in size, as crews battle triple-digit heat and erratic winds in an effort to contain the blaze.

Eratic winds and dry grasses fed the blaze as it tore through the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. An estimated 200 homes and many businesses had been destroyed as the lightning-sparked fire spread to nearly 8,400 acres from 2,000 acres overnight.

More than 400 firefighters were trying to contain the fire on three flanks, but officials said there was "zero containment" early Monday afternoon. "This is a nightmare scenario for firefighting: thunderstorms producing little rainfall, unpredictable, shifting winds, and, of course, lightning strikes," says Weather Channel meteorologist Jon Erdman.

Eighteen of the 19 killed - all men - were part of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott in the worst wildland firefighter tragedy in the U.S. since 25 died in 1933's Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles. It's also the worst incident for firefighters since 9/11, when 343 members of the New York Fire Department died.

The lone survivor of the hotshot team escaped because he was moving a crew truck when the fire engulfed the rest of the crew. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin says the crew and commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them. Roy Hall, incident commander at the Arizona Division of Forestry, said the deaths are under investigation.

Firefighters were working to secure the eastern flank of the fire to protect homes in Yarnell and Peeples Valley. Air tankers and helicopters were also expected to drop fire retardant and water on hotspots and the fire's perimeter. 
 


A caravan of white vans carried the bodies of the 19 firefighers to Phoenix, where the Maricopa County Medical Examiner will conduct autopsies.

President Obama hailed the fallen as heroes. In a statement released as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said Monday, "Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters."

Flags were at half staff in downtown Prescott and many business had put up signs thanking firefighters and the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

"It's a dark day," said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.

Reichling said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that had 19 emergency fire shelters deployed. Some of them were found inside their shelters: tent-like structures meant to shield flames and heat. They are typically used as a last resort.

"The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this incident," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet."

Reichling said the number of firefighters on the scene will reach 400.

Prescott Fire Capt Jeff Knotek retired Sunday after 28 years as firefighter, said 20% of his 100-member department had been lost.

"It's hard - in a matter of minutes they are all gone," Knotek said. "They are a really good group of guys, and really, really good at what they do. It's a perfect example of how quickly that stuff can happen."

Knotek, 52, said he took his son with him to work his last shift as a firefighter Sunday, finishing the overnight shift at 8 am. He was not assigned to the Yarnell fire.

"It's not something I want to remember for my last day," he said.

Fraijo said one member of the local hotshot crew survived because he was not with the other members when they were caught in the blaze.

Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoon-like weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. He added that the winds changed direction on the hotshot crew.

"They were caught up in a very bad situation," he said.

Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.

"They died heroes," she said, crying. "And we'll miss them. We love them."

Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoon-like weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. He added that the winds changed direction on the hotshot crew.

"They were caught up in a very bad situation," he said.

Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.

"They died heroes," she said, crying. "And we'll miss them. We love them."

Hotshot crews specialize in attacking wildfires like the Yarnell Hill Fire. They often hike for miles into the wilderness with chainsaws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.

Fraijo called hotshot crews, "the core of firefighting. They're right there in the middle of the incident," he said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the losses "are just unbearable." She signed an order declaring a state of emergency in Yavapai County, which will make $200,000 of state money available to support emergency response and recovery efforts and authorizes deployment of the state National Guard.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz, represents the area hit by the wildfire. He said he will join law enforcement in checking on residents in evacuation zones to make sure everyone is accounted for.

"This is catastrophic," Gosar told KPNX. "My heart hurts for all the people in Yarnell. It's not a great day to be in Arizona."

Gosar said many residents will need support to recover from loss of their homes and belongings.

"A lot of these people lost everything," he said.

Gosar said people can donate to the Red Cross if they want to help those affected by the wildfires and should "keep everybody in your thoughts and prayers."

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