Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

Arizona mourns the deaths of 19 firefighters

PRESCOTT, Ariz.

Trapped by a wildfire that exploded tenfold in a matter of hours, a crack team of firefighting "Hotshots" broke out their portable emergency shelters and rushed to climb into the foil-lined, heat-resistant bags before the flames swept over them.

By the time the blaze had passed, 19 men lay dead in 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 at Prescott, authorities said Monday as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain in the town of Yarnell. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.

The deaths plunged the two small towns into mourning as the wildfire continued to threaten Yarnell. Arizona's governor called it "as dark a day as I can remember" and ordered flags flown at half-staff. A line of white vans carried the bodies to Phoenix for autopsies.

"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," said Gov. Jan Brewer, her voice catching several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School in the town of 40,000.

The lightning-sparked fire, which spread to 13 square miles by Monday morning, destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department said.

About 200 more firefighters joined the battle Monday, bringing the total to 400. Among them were several other Hotshot teams, elite groups of firefighters sent in from around the country to battle the nation's fiercest wildfires.

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, and state officials were investigating.

Brewer said the blaze "exploded into a firestorm" that overran the crew.

Brian Klimowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff, said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.

Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, and it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.

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, chain saws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.

Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their emergency shelters as they were trained to do. When there is no way out, firefighters are supposed to step into them, lie facedown on the ground and pull the fire-resistant fabric completely over themselves.

"It'll protect you, but only for a short amount of time. If the fire quickly burns over you, you'll probably survive that," said Prescott fire Capt. Jeff Knotek. But "if it burns intensely for any amount of time while you're in that thing, there's nothing that's going to save you from that."

Autopsies were scheduled to determine exactly how the firefighters died.

President Barack Obama offered his administration's help in investigating the tragedy and predicted it will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly deadly wildfires.

"We are heartbroken about what happened," he said while on a visit to Africa.

Arizona is in the midst of a historic drought that has left large parts of the state highly flammable.

Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoonlike weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. There had not been a fire in the Yarnell area in 40 years.

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

Monday night, more than 1,000 people turned out to a Prescott university gym to honor the 19 firefighters.

Those in the crowd rocked children in their arms, wiped away tears and applauded robustly after each set of remarks, often rising to their feet. Speakers quoted heavily from scripture and described the firefighters' deaths as Christ-like.

Prescott fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice and paused frequently as he described throwing a picnic a month ago for his new recruits and meeting their families.

"About five hours ago, I met those same families at an auditorium," he said during the service, held at the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Those families lost. The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost."

At the end of the ceremony, dozens of firefighters sporting Hotshot shirts and uniforms from other jurisdictions marched to the front of the auditorium. They bowed their heads for a moment of silence in memory of their fallen comrades.

     
 
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