Jacques Billeaud / The Associated Press
A sudden windstorm turned an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 firefighters, nearly all of them members of an elite crew of “hotshots,” authorities said Monday. It was the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The flames swept over the victims Sunday evening as they took cover in their foil-lined emergency shelters.
“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.”
The windblown, lightning-sparked fire – which had exploded fourfold to about 13 square miles by Monday morning – also destroyed dozens of homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of 700 people about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
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.
The fire killed 18 members of a hotshot crew based in nearby Prescott, plus a firefighter who was not part of the unit, Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said.
One member of the hotshot crew survived because he was moving the unit’s truck when the flames roared over the men, Reichling said.
It was unclear exactly how the crew became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire’s erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
The 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, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.
The disaster all but wiped out the Prescott hotshot crew, 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. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based. Prescott resident Keith Gustafson showed up and placed 19 water bottles in the shape of a heart.
“When I heard about this, it just hit me hard,” he said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Hotshot crews go through specialized training and are sent in to battle the nation’s fiercest wildfires. Sometimes they hike for miles into the wilderness with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
As a last-ditch effort at survival, members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with a tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said.
“It’s an extreme measure that’s taken under the absolute worst conditions,” Fraijo said.
Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their shelters.
More than 200 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the wildfire as of Monday morning. They included 18 hotshot crews from around the country. Such crews typically have about 20 members each. The number of hotshot crews assigned to the fire is expected to at least double, Reichling said.
Arizona is in the midst of a historic drought that has left large parts of the state highly flammable.
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 biggest loss of firefighters in U.S. history was 343, killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York.
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.
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 people heroes and said in a statement that the federal government was assisting state and local officials.
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 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 went to the Arrowhead Bar and Grill in nearby Congress, where he and other locals watched on TV as the fire destroyed his house.
The Red Cross opened two shelters in the area – one at Yavapai College in Prescott and the other in a high school gym.
Billeaud reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff in Yarnell and Martin Di Caro in Washington also contributed to this report.