Arizona wildfire that killed 19 firefighters has quadrupled in size

1:22 PM, Jul 1, 2013   |    comments
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By Jackee Coe and Laurie Merrill , Arizona Republic/USA TODAY 

YARNELL, Ariz. - The fast-moving wildfire that killed 19 firefighters here Sunday is now more than quadruple in size, as crews battle triple-digit heat and erratic winds in an effort to contain the blaze.

Eratic winds and dry grasses fed the blaze as it tore through the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. An estimated 200 homes and many businesses had been destroyed as the lightning-sparked fire spread to nearly 8,400 acres from 2,000 acres overnight.

Eighteen of the 19 dead were part of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott in the worst wildland firefighter tragedy in the U.S. since 25 were killed in 1933's Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles. It's also the worst firefighter death toll since 9/11.

The lone survivor escaped because he was moving the crew's truck when the fire engulfed the rest of the crew. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin says the crew and commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them. Roy Hall, incident commander at the Arizona Division of Forestry, said the deaths are under investigation.


President Obama hailed the fallen as heroes. In a statement released as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said Monday, "Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave fi

Flags were at half staff in downtown Prescott and many business had put up signs thanking firefighters and the Granite Mountain Hotshots.




"It's a dark day," said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.

Reichling said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that had 19 emergency fire shelters deployed. Some of were found inside their shelters; tent-like structures meant to shield flames and heat. They are typically used as a last resort.

"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. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet."

Reichling said the number of firefighters on the scene will reach 400.

Prescott Fire Capt Jeff Knotek, who retired Sunday after 28 years as firefighter, said the deaths represent 20% of the city's fire department. 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 am. He was not assigned to the Yarnell fire.


"Its not something i want to remember for my last day," he said.

Fraijo said one member of the local hotshot crew survived because he was not with the other members when they were caught in the blaze.


Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoon-like weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. He added that the winds changed direction on the hotshot crew.

"They were caught up in a very bad situation," he said.

Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.

"They died heroes," she said, crying. "And we'll miss them. We love them."


The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office was notifying the families of the deceased.

Prescott Fire Capt Jeff Knotek, who retired Sunday after 28 years as firefighter, said the deaths represent 20% of the city's fire department. 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 am. He was not assigned to the Yarnell fire.




"Its not something i want to remember for my last day," he said.



U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz, represents the area hit by the wildfire. He said he will join law enforcement in checking on residents in evacuation zones to make sure everyone is accounted for.


"This is catastrophic," Gosar told KPNX. "My heart hurts for all the people in Yarnell. It's not a great day to be in Arizona."


Gosar said many residents will need support to recover from loss of their homes and belongings.


"A lot of these people lost everything," he said.


Gosar said people can donate to the Red Cross if they want to help those affected by the wildfires and should "keep everybody in your thoughts and prayers."

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer plans to tour the area and may call the Legislature into a special session to provide emergency funding for the victims.

"This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters," 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."

In his statement, Obama said: "The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need."


Fraijo said it is still unclear what caused the incident and he did not wish to speculate without more information.

"My heart weeps for those who lost their lives and were affected by today's Yarnell Hill Fire,'' said U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

The lost firefighters were members of a "hotshot" crew, who specialize in attacking wildfires like the Yarnell Hill Fire. The elite firefighters often 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.

Fraijo called these hotshot crews, "the core of firefighting. They're right there in the middle of the incident," he said.

Officials at the scene of the blaze said they expect about half of the town's homes to be destroyed by the fire. It has burned more than 6,000 acres, CNN reported.



Arizona Republic writers Coe and Merrill reported from Yarnell; Cummings reported from McLean, Va.; Hjelmgaard reported from London

Contributing: The Associated Press


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