19 Firefighters Killed in Arizona Wildfire Were Part of Elite Hotshot Crew
"We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."- Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo
Nineteen members of an elite firefighting crew who were killed Sunday in an Arizona wildfire tried to protect themselves by deploying tent-like structures before they were overtaken, a state forestry spokesman says.
The lightning-sparked fire, which spread to at least 2,000 acres amid triple-digit temperatures, destroyed 200 homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents that sits 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Most people had evacuated from the town, and no injuries or other deaths were reported.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said the firefighters, whose names had not been released, were part of the city’s fire department. A helicopter pilot discovered the bodies and authorities are working to remove them, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson said, according to Fox 10.
Nineteen fire shelters were deployed on Sunday, 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.
It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. in decades.
"We're devastated," Fraijo said late Sunday. "We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."
The fire killed all but one member of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, which were known for battling the region’s worst fires, including two earlier this season. The average age of the men in the crew was 22-years-old, Fox 10 reports.
Prescott firefighter and spokesman Wade Ward told the Prescott Daily Courier in an interview last week that the crews are highly trained individuals who work long hours in extreme conditions. The crews, which number roughly 100 in the U.S., often hike for miles into the wilderness with chainsaws and backpacks stuffed with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and raging fires.
State forestry spokesman Art Morrison told the Associated Press that the firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters — tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat — when they were caught in the Yarnell-area fire on Sunday.
The Cronkite News Service had featured the group in a story practicing such deployment in a worst-case scenario drill.
"One of the last fail-safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective -- kinda looks like a foil type -- fire-resistant material -- with the desire, the hope at least, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it," Fraijo said Sunday.
"Under certain conditions there's usually only sometimes a 50 percent chance that they survive," he said. "It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions."
Two hundred firefighters were working on the Yarnell fire Sunday, and several hundred more were expected to arrive Monday. The fire has also forced the closure of parts of state Route 89. It was zero percent contained late Sunday.
The Prescott-based crew last year had four rookies on its team, according to the Cronkite News Service report.
"This is as dark a day as I can remember," Arizona 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 risk is well-known to the brave men and women who don their gear and do battle against forest and flame.
"When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all."
Brewer said she would travel to the area on Monday.
President Obama, currently traveling in Africa, released a statement praising the firefighters as "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."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the "devastating" loss is a reminder of deadly risks firefighters take every day.
"Their sacrifice will never be forgotten," McCain said in a statement.
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 Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, according to the website.
In another Arizona fire, a 2-acre blaze that started at a motorcycle salvage yard and spread to a trailer park has destroyed five mobile homes in the Gila County community of Rye, located more than 130 miles east of Yarnell.
Gila County Health and Emergency Services Director Michael O'Driscoll said no one was injured in Rye.
The fire was ignited Saturday night at All Bikes Sales located off Highway 87. It spread to neighboring federal Forest Service land but was fully contained within 12 hours of its start.
The Red Cross says seven adults and two children were staying at a shelter set up for people who were evacuated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.