Windshift blamed for death of Ariz. firefighters
A sudden windshift is being blamed for the death of 19 elite hotshot firefighters in Ariz. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since Sept. 11
The Associated Press
YARNELL, Ariz. — A sudden wind storm turned an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 members of an elite crew of firefighters trained to battle the nation's fiercest wildfires. It was the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since Sept. 11.
It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based in the small town of Prescott, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said as the last of the bodies were retrieved from a mountain. Authorities earlier said one of the dead wasn't a crew member.
Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time, authorities said.
The deaths plunged the town into mourning, and Arizona's governor called it "as dark a day I can remember" and ordered flags flown at half-staff.
"We are heartbroken about what happened," President Barack Obama said while on a visit to Africa. He predicted the tragedy will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly wildfires.
The windblown, lightning-sparked fire — which had exploded to about 13 square miles (34 square kilometers) by Monday morning — also destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles (137 kilometers) northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department said.
Residents huddled in shelters and restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
Brian Klimowski, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Flagstaff office, said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. It's not known how powerful the winds were, but they were enough to cause the fire to grow in size from 200 acres (80 hectares) to about 2,000 acres (800 hectares) in a matter of hours Sunday.
The hotshot team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to Yarnell, entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.
As a last-ditch effort at survival, members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with a tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said.
"It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions," Fraijo said.
Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their shelters.
The flames apparently enveloped the fire shelters. Autopsies were scheduled to determine how the firefighters died.
Gov. Jan Brewer's voice caught several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School.
"I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today," she said.
On the bleachers, two women held each other and wept into tissues. An elderly man clutched a wooden walking stick and gazed at the ground. Many of the residents were red-eyed, and listened with their hands over their mouths.
A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based.
Hotshot crews go through specialized training and are sent in to battle the nation's fiercest wildfires. Sometimes they hike for miles into the wilderness with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
More than 200 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the wildfire as of Monday morning. They included 18 hotshot crews from around the country. Such crews typically have about 20 members each. The number of hotshot crews assigned to the fire is expected to at least double, Reichling said.
The U.S. has 110 hotshot crews, according to the U.S. Forest Service website.
Arizona is in the midst of a historic drought that has left large parts of the state highly flammable.
The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire of Los Angeles, which killed 29. The biggest loss of firefighters in U.S. history was 343, killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York.
In 1994, the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.
Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Yarnell and Martin Di Caro in Washington also contributed to this report.