By Jueseppi B.
(CNN) — They were part of an elite squad confronting wildfires on the front line, setting up barriers to stop the spreading destruction. But in their unpredictable world, it doesn’t take much to turn a situation deadly.
In this case, a wind shift and other factors caused a central Arizona fire, which now spans 8,400 acres, to become erratic, said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.
Though the deaths are under investigation, the inferno appears to have proved too much, even for the shelters the 19 firefighters carried as a last-ditch survival tool.
“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,” Reichling told CNN affiliate KNXV. “That’s what caused the deaths.
The 19 firefighters — members of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots– were killed Sunday while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, northwest of Phoenix. Among the dead was Eric Marsh, the unit’s 43-year-old superintendent.
Also killed, according to the city of Prescott: Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.
The deaths of the 19 — representing about 20 percent of Prescott’s fire department — devastated the city. Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, who sent the unit at the request of regional authorities, said he was told that one of the firefighters had radioed they were about to deploy their fire shelters, a sort of aluminum blanket that protects against the flames and heat — and a measure of last resort.
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — As firefighters tried to gain control over a stubborn, swelling wildfire near here Monday, this close-knit mountain town was trying to contain its grief.
Many flocked to Prescott Fire Station No. 7, the small, one-story base of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the elite firefighting crew that lost 19 of 20 men as they were overcome Sunday by the swift, erratic Yarnell Hill Fire 30 miles to the south.
Juliann Ashcraft said she learned that her husband, Andrew, 29, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children. “They died heroes,” she said, wiping away tears. “And we’ll miss them. We love them.”
Most were in their 20s, but ranged in age from 21 to 43. Outside a gated, locked fence where more than a dozen vehicles left behind by the lost firefighters remain parked, a stream of tearful mourners honored the loss of neighbors, relatives and friends with flowers, signs, balloons, flags, caps, letters, religious figures and other mementos.
Prescott resident Keith Gustafson 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.”
The blaze — the worst wildfire tragedy since 1933 and the biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11 took 343 New York Fire Department personnel — was ignited Friday by lightning. The 2,000 acres burning Sunday quadrupled by Monday, with 8,400 acres engulfed in towering flames and unthinkable heat. Some 200 homes and businesses have been devoured in the towns of Glen Isla and Yarnell, 30 miles south of Prescott and about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Erratic winds and dry grasses have been feeding the inferno as more than 400 firefighters were trying to flank it from three sides in triple-digit heat. Air tankers and helicopters were also saturating the area to keep it from spreading.
“This is a nightmare scenario for firefighting: thunderstorms producing little rainfall, unpredictable, shifting winds, and, of course, lightning strikes,” Weather Channel meteorologist Jon Erdman said.
Amie Nichols and fiancé Dustin Oliver came to honor Oliver’s cousin and close friend, nicknamed Tiny. “He was always a good guy — always funny,” said Oliver, who declined to name his cousin. “We grew up together. I haven’t slept since I heard about it yesterday.”
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Kathy Stapp, 46, and Carianne Sarver, 25, came to pray and reflect. “It’s a small community,” Sarver said. “It affects everyone. It’s just awful. I don’t think there are words. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Sarver and her family moved to Prescott — a city of 40,000 — last year from Virginia. But in that short time, they had come to know some of the firefighters. “It’s just searing to lose all those men,” she said. “It’s such a big loss.”
“The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this incident,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said.
Many of those killed were Prescott High graduates, including Clayton Whitted, who would work out as a firefighter on the same campus where he played football for the Prescott Badgers from 2000 to 2004. Football coach Lou Beneitone said Whitted, 28, “worked his fanny off.”
“He wasn’t a big kid, and many times in the game, he was overpowered by big men, and he still got after it.” He and Whitted talked a few months ago about how this year’s fire season could be a “rough one.”
“I shook his hand, gave him a hug, and said, ‘Be safe out there,'” Beneitone recalled. “He said, ‘I will, Coach.'”
Prescott Fire Capt Jeff Knotek, who retired Sunday after 28 years as a firefighter, said 20% of his 100-member department had been lost.
“It’s hard — in a matter of minutes they are all gone,” Knotek said. “They are a really good group of guys, and really, really good at what they do. It’s a perfect example of how quickly that stuff can happen.”
Knotek, 52, said he took his son with him to work his last shift as a firefighter Sunday, finishing the overnight shift at 8 a.m. He was not assigned to the Yarnell Hill Fire. “It’s not something I want to remember for my last day,” he said.
“I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today,” said Brewer, who ordered state flags at half-staff. She also declared a state of emergency in Yavapai County. That will make $200,000 of state money available to support emergency response and recovery efforts as well as authorize deployment of the state National Guard.
As Brewer spoke, a caravan of white vans carried the victims’ bodies to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, where they will be autopsied. The vans passed under arched ladders of fire trucks and a nearby American flag.
President Obama hailed the fallen as heroes. In a statement released as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama sent “thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters. We are heartbroken about what happened.”
Grief also poured out on the Granite Mountain Hotshots Facebook page, where a steady stream of comments praised the fallen.
“The flags at all of our fire stations are at half staff,” wrote Sandra Lynn Alves from California. “May God be with you and may you guys get some help from heaven to get this fire out.”
Ontario, Canada, resident and retired firefighter Ron Sinclair wrote: “My prayers and sympathy go out to the families, friends and brother fire fighters. May god give you strength and comfort in this time of sorrow.”
Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said 19 emergency fire shelters had been deployed. Some of the victims were discovered inside the shelters — tent-like, foil-covered structures meant to shield flames and heat. “They were caught up in a very bad situation,” he said.
ABC World News Now : Bodies of 19 Firefighters Killed in Arizona Wildfire Recovered
Published on Jul 2, 2013
The Yarnell fire killed 19 of 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew.
19 Firefighters Killed In Arizona Fire
Published on Jul 1, 2013
I just learned that 19 Hotshot firefighters were killed in the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. Being an ex wildland firefighter myself I would like to share my experience in working the dangerous Colorado fires of 2001-2002.
The Yarnell Hill, Arizona Wildfire
Arizona officials on Tuesday launched an investigation into the deadly wildfire that killed almost an entire crew of firefighters—while the fire remains completely uncontained. The 19 firefighters’ bodies were found by their safety shelters, leading investigators to believe they died while trapped in them. A forestry official said Monday that the firefighters lacked a proper escape route when the winds shifted course and flames overtook them. The identities of members of the crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were released on Monday. The fire killed about a third of Prescott’s sworn firefighters. Meanwhile, the deadly Yarnell wildfire has already burned through 8,500 acres and continues unabated.
PRESCOTT, Ariz. —As the Yarnell Hill Fire continues to rage uncontrolled, Arizona officials launched an investigation Tuesday to find out how the fast, erratic wildfire killed 19 hotshot firefighters and whether the tragedy could have been averted.
Fire conditions Sunday were among the most dangerous some experts had ever seen. Low humidity, high temperatures and extremely dry and dense fuel created a worst-case scenario for the crew, which was trapped between two ridges when winds suddenly reversed.
Some of the men had covered themselves with foil-lined, heat-resistant tarps known as fire shelters, but they were unable to survive the blaze. The fire dispatch center was notified at about 4:50 p.m. Sunday that the shelters were deployed, said Carrie Dennett, an Arizona State Forestry Division fire-prevention officer.
The grim scene is the starting point for the state’s investigation. It comes as the Forestry Division turned over command of firefighting activities late Monday to a federal fire-management team with broader access to resources and equipment. While the federal government will oversee firefighting, the state will maintain control over the investigation.
By Tuesday afternoon, the Yarnell Hill Fire had grown to 13 square miles and was completely uncontained. As many as 500 firefighters are battling the blaze.
The members of the crew, the only hotshot team in the nation from a city fire department, were killed Sunday protecting homes as they battled the Yarnell Hill Fire, about 35 miles southwest of here. It is the worst firefighting tragedy ever in Arizona, and one of the nation’s deadliest.
Dennett declined to say when the firefighters died. She said the state agency’s investigative team should begin taking shape Tuesday as other fire investigators start their work.
“It will be designed so we can learn from this and teach up-and-coming firefighters if there are any lessons that can be learned,” Dennett said. “A lot of firefighters died. We have to do this right and get the right team here. It will take some time.”
The investigative team will consist of up to 10 people recruited from around the country from local, state and federal agencies, she said.
The group will include a team leader, a fire-behavioral analyst who can describe how a fire accelerates, a fire-operations specialist, a safety specialist and a person to document the information, said Judith Downing of the U.S. Forest Service. A report will be published when the work is finished.
Downing, who arrived Monday in Arizona with a seven-member National Incident Management Organization team to assist in the operation, said the investigation will be independent.
“Our role is not to do the investigation,” Downing said. “Our role is to provide support to the state.”
Investigators will want to understand the weather, how the fire behaved, the location of the fire crews and what the vegetation was like. They are expected to sift through troves of records: dispatch logs, standing plans, incident-management decisions, radio logs, historical weather readings, forest clearance schedules — anything to help them understand why so many died and how to prevent it from happening again.
“Hotshot crews always assess the risks before going in. I know, knowing Granite Mountain, they did that. They are as good a crew as is out there,” said Dugger Hughes of the Southwest Coordination Center, an interagency organization in New Mexico that coordinates state and federal firefighting resources. He also is a wildland battalion chief whose command includes a hotshot team.
“They knew what they were getting into. It had to be pretty dramatic. I’m anxious to see the report. I want to know what happened,” he said, noting that he has fought fires with the men who died. He saw no indication of communications failures
- Nation mourns loss of 19 firefighters killed in Arizona wildfire (voicerussia.com)
- Yarnell Hill Fire still 0% contained as 19 Arizona firefighters mourned (newsday.com)
- How Hotshot firefighters made one last desperate bid for survival. (smh.com.au)
- More Than 1,000 Mourn 19 Ariz. Firefighters (abcnews.go.com)
- ‘Perfect storm’ likely trapped 19 firefighters; town plunged into grief (q13fox.com)