In what is being called the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least 30 years, an out-of-control blaze trapped and killed 19 firefighters Sunday in central Arizona. They had been forced to use temporary shelters in an attempt to survive.
Nearly all of those killed were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group based in Prescott, Ariz., that uses rigorous training to prepare for fighting wildfires. They are frequently deployed to the front lines of firefighting efforts against such blazes.
The Yarnell Hill Fire started Friday near the town of Yarnell, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. The cause is under investigation, but many news outlets are reporting that the fire may have been sparked by a lightning strike. The blaze grew quickly and erratically, spreading from 2,000 acres to 6,000 acres as of late Sunday night. The flames have destroyed an estimated 200 homes.
Eighteen of the firefighters who died Sunday were part of the Granite Mountain team. There have been conflicting reports about whether the 19th firefighter was part of that group.
Monday morning, the local Daily Courier said simply, “Prescott is mourning.”
The loss has led to the creation of a Facebook page honoring those killed by the fire over the weekend. As of this morning, more than 100,000 people had liked the page, with many people, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, writing in with their condolences.
Hotshot crews often have about 20 members. At least one member of the Granite Mountain team had been working elsewhere, according to reports. Cut off from safety, the firefighters tried to use personal emergency shelters — sort of a cross between a tent and a sleeping bag — to survive.
“They’re a last-ditch effort. They’re something that we train on, but it’s not something that we rely on, in any case,” Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward tells Fox 10 News. “The only thing that we can say is that it must have been a very unbearable situation and a last resort,” he added, noting the firefighters’ training and awareness of conditions.
“Emotionally, we’re devastated. We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet,” Prescott fire chief Dan Fraijo says. “I mean, right now, we’re in crisis.”
Incident Commander Mike Reichling tells ABC 15 what helped make the Yarnell fire so dangerous:
“This fire was very radical in its behavior, the fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south, it turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon. That’s what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels.”
The Arizona Republic puts the loss in historic perspective, reporting that “the Sunday incident is believed to be the deadliest firefighting toll in a wildfire since 1933, and the deadliest single event for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”
The Granite Mountain Hotshots had worked on the nearby Doce fire in June, according to the Courier. It also fought fires in New Mexico this year.
In a statement issued by the White House early Monday, President Obama called the fallen firefighters heroes.
Here’s the president’s statement:
“Yesterday, nineteen firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. They were heroes — highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet. In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need. But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”
Officials are promising an investigation into what happened. Yarnell Hill is one of several wildfires currently burning in the U.S. NPR’s Fire Forecast app, which is updated daily, keeps track of reported wildfires. We’ll embed it below. You can change the location by entering a new “ZIP code, city, etc.”