Arizona wildfire kills 19 members of elite crew

Arizona wildfire kills 19 members of elite crew (Image 1)

YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) – 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 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 local restaurants, 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,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said
at a news conference Sunday evening. “We're devastated. We just lost 19
of the finest people you'll ever meet.”

A total of 250 firefighters and support personnel
were assigned to the fire as of Sunday. Fire managers said a top-level
management team and another four Hotshot crews were on the way Monday.
They typically have 20 members each.

Spokesmen for fire managers did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Monday.

The National Weather Service said there's a 30
percent of thunderstorms and showers Monday in the Yarnell area. Rain
could help slow the fire, but the forecast also says the storms could
produce gusty winds.

Television aerial video footage showed law
enforcement vehicles patrolling Yarnell, driving streets with burned
buildings on both sides.

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.

Most people had evacuated from the town, and no injuries or other deaths were reported.

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.

“It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions,” Fraijo said.

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.

Prescott, which is more than 30 miles northeast of
Yarnell, is home to one of 110 Hotshot crews in the United States,
according to the U.S. Forest Service website. The unit was established
in 2002, and the city also has 75 suppression team members.

In 1994, the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs,
Colo., killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion
of flames.

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.

Copyright 2013 The
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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