YARNELL, Ariz. (CBS Las Vegas/AP) — Gusty, hot winds blew an Arizona blaze out of control Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing 19 members of an elite fire crew in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.
CBS affiliate KPHO is reporting that 19 firefighters lost their lives while attempting to battle the blaze, according to information obtained by the station from the Incident Command Post. Officials additionally told KPHO that 18 of the fatalities were firefighters – all men – from a group referred to as the Prescott Granite Mountain Hot Shots.
Only one member of the crew survived because the person was not on the scene, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told members of the press during a briefing.
He added that the entire department is “devastated,” and that “[they] are an organization and a city in grief.”
“We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet,” Fraijo explained. “Right now … we’re in crisis.”
The lightning-sparked fire, which 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.
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.
“We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,” Fraijo said at a news conference Sunday evening. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
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 most firefighters — 340 — were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, according to the website.
The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., which killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames. The Los Angeles Times also referred to the blaze as the deadliest wildfire in regards to firefighter fatalities since the one that claimed the lives of 25 firefighters in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1933.
A post on the official Facebook page for U.S. Wildland Fire Aviation asked for “prayers for the families and friends of these brave men and women.”
The fire started Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. Officials ordered the evacuations of 50 homes in several communities, and later Sunday afternoon, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office expanded the order to include more residents in Yarnell, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
The firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters — tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat — when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told The Associated Press.
“One of the last fail safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective — kinda looks like a foil type— fire-resistant material — with the desire, the hope at least, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it,” Fraijo said.
“Under certain conditions there’s usually only sometimes a 50 percent chance that they survive,” he said. “It’s an extreme measure that’s taken under the absolute worst conditions.”
Members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots have, in the past, spoken about the importance of their rigorous training sessions, which reportedly involve simulations of the extreme conditions they face when battling wildfires.
“When we get out there, it’s a completely different ballgame,” Daniel McCarty, a squad leader for the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, told Cronkite News in a 2012 feature story about the crew. “It’s the real deal. We have to look out for each other.”
He added, “In any other job you don’t have to worry about your life day in and day out. But in this job you have to watch your buddy too.”
The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona. The unit was established in 2002.
Prescott, which is more than 30 miles northeast of Yarnell, is one of the only cities in the United States that has a hot shot fire crew, Fraijo said. The unit was established in 2002, and the city also has 75 suppression team members.
Morrison said several homes in the community of Glenisle burned on Sunday. He said no other injuries or deaths have been reported from that area.
About 200 firefighters are fighting the wildfire, which has also forced the closure of parts of state Route 89. An additional 130 firefighters and more water- and retardant-dropping helicopters and aircraft are on their way.
Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, told The Arizona Republic they’re calling in federal help to fight the fire.
Roxie Glover, spokeswoman at Wickenburg Community Hospital, said that the hospital has been told to expect people with injuries.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at Yavapai College in Prescott, the sheriff’s office said.
President Barack Obama called the 19 firefighters heroes and said in a statement that the federal government was assisting state and local officials.
“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.”
Brewer said she would travel to the area on Monday.
As the blaze spread, people started fleeing, including Chuck Overmyer and his wife, Ninabill. They were helping friends leave when the blaze switched directions and moved toward his property. They loaded up what belongings they could, including three dogs and a 1930 model hot rod on a trailer.
As he looked out his rear view mirror he could see embers on the roof of his garage.
“We knew it was gone,” he said.
He later gathered at the Arrowhead Bar and Grill in nearby Congress along with locals and watched on TV as he saw the fire destroy his house.
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.
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