An out-of-control blaze overtook an elite group of firefighters trained to battle the nation’s fiercest wildfires, killing 19 members as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields. It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. in decades. The disaster Sunday afternoon all but wiped out the 20-member Hotshot fire crew based in nearby Prescott, leaving the city’s fire department reeling.
The blaze started when lightning struck and was further compounded by the heat, low humidity and wind gusts. It spread to at least 2,000 acres amid triple-digit temperatures, also destroyed 200 homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Residents huddled in shelters and bars, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
Hotshot crews go through specialized training and are often deployed soon after a fire breaks out. Sometimes they hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws 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. This crew had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona.
As a last-ditch effort at survival, Hotshot crew members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with the tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said. The hope in that desperate situation is that the fire will burn over them and they will survive. Nineteen fire shelters were deployed, and some of the firefighters were found inside them, while others were outside the shelters, Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, told the Arizona Republic.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. “It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: fighting fires is dangerous work.”
Two hundred firefighters were working on the fire Sunday, and several hundred more were expected to arrive Monday. The fire has forced the closure of parts of state Route 89. Fire crews had no containment late Sunday. The Red Cross has opened two shelters in the area – at Yavapai College in Prescott and at the Wickenburg High School gym. Read more
Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with the families of these slain heroes. They will be remembered for saving lives and their ultimate, unselfish sacrifice.
Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Also contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Yarnell and Martin Di Caro in Washington. Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.