Daily Updates

July 1, 2013

More elite fire crews go to Arizona after 19 killed

YARNELL, Ariz. — 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.

————

Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Also contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Yarnell and Martin Di Caro in Washington.

 

1
Text Only
Daily Updates
  • 10 Things to Know for Monday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday:

    April 20, 2014

  • In Other News, April 20

    April 20, 2014

  • Ukraine, Russia trade blame for shootout in east

    Within hours of an Easter morning shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming militant Ukrainian nationalists and Russian state television stations aired pictures of supposed proof of their involvement in the attack that left at least three people dead.

    April 20, 2014

  • In West Bank, teen offenders face different fates

    The boys were both 15, with the crackly voices and awkward peach fuzz of adolescence. They lived just a few minutes away from one another in the West Bank. And both were accused of throwing stones at vehicles, one day after the other.

    April 20, 2014

  • Study: Fuels from corn waste not better than gas

    Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a study shows, challenging the Obama administration’s conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change.

    April 20, 2014

  • Fracking foes cringe as unions back drilling boom

    After early complaints that out-of-state firms got the most jobs, some local construction trade workers and union members in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia say they’re now benefiting in a big way from the Marcellus and Utica Shale oil and gas boom.

    April 20, 2014

  • In Colorado, a pot holiday tries to go mainstream

    Once the province of activists and stoners, the traditional pot holiday of April 20 has gone mainstream in the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana.

    April 20, 2014

  • ‘Capt. America’ tops box office for third week

    Captain America continues to vanquish box office foes, triumphing in ticket sales for the third consecutive week and dominating over megastar Johnny Depp’s new movie.

    April 20, 2014

  • Probe could complicate Rick Perry’s prospects

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent a record 14 years in office vanquishing nearly all who dared confront him: political rivals, moms against mandatory vaccines for sixth graders, a coyote in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    April 20, 2014

  • NASA’s space station Robonaut finally getting legs

    Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs.

    April 19, 2014