PRESCOTT, Ariz. – Arizona officials dispatched fresh crews to battle a growing wildfire after 19 members of an elite firefighting crew were killed in the worst loss of U.S. emergency personnel since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency for what she called the deadliest conflagration in state history. The blaze, in Yarnell, has quadrupled in size since yesterday, when 19 of an elite crew’s 20 members at the scene vainly sought refuge in their portable shelters.
“We can never fully repay the sacrifice made by your loved ones,” Brewer said at a news conference in Prescott, where the fire team was based.
The flames were “zero percent contained” as of 1 p.m. local time, Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the multistate Southwest Area Incident Command, told reporters. An honor guard was transporting any recovered bodies to the Maricopa County medical examiner’s office in Phoenix, she said, and more firefighters were sent to join the 400 personnel on site.
About 250 homes were consumed in the wildfire, which covered more than 8,300 acres near Yarnell, a town of about 700 people that is 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Conditions were hampered by temperatures above 100 degrees and low humidity.
The fire, which began June 28, was started by a lightning strike, said Dan Fraijo, fire chief of Prescott, about 34 miles northeast of Yarnell. The victims were members of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew assembled in 2002 to penetrate wildfires via helicopter or on the ground to thin trees, build barriers and spread water or chemical suppressants.
Yarnell, a city of 40,000, was preparing today for the opening of a 125-year-old rodeo billed by the city as the oldest in the U.S. Hotels were booked with competitors and spectators.
“In the back of their minds, they’re going to be thinking of the 19 guys that could have been here at that rodeo but won’t be,” Bob Baird, a 74-year-old retired airline pilot from Prescott, said as he lay two bouquets, each with 19 flowers, among the balloons and cards left at Station Seven, where the crew was based.
Fraijo said the circumstances of the deaths were under investigation and didn’t name any victims. Officials declined to identify a 20th crew member who was apart from the others, and survived.
Rasmussen said all the victims had deployed their fire shelters, blanket-like devices designed to withstand heat and to provide a pocket of air near the ground. The shelters can repel flames, though “it has its limits as well,” she said in an interview after the news conference.
Ken Bennett, the Arizona secretary of state and a former longtime city resident, identified one firefighter as Andrew Ashcraft from Prescott, whose wife, Juliann, attended services Sunday with members of Bennett’s family at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Willow Creek Ward, in Prescott.
“She was telling my family he was out at the Yarnell fire,” Bennett said in a phone interview on his way to Prescott. “She said she was worried but he always came home. Eight hours later we learned this time, he didn’t. We are just heartbroken.”
About 55 displaced Yarnell residents spent the night at Red Cross shelters at Wickenburg High School, about 25 miles south of town, and Yavapai College in Prescott, Trudy Thompson Rice, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said in an interview at the Wickenburg site. Most Yarnell residents had chosen to stay with friends or family, she said.
Debra Denison, 61, was uncertain whether her residence of six years, a blue and white mobile home surrounded by wooden decks, was intact. She had spotted the fire glowing red near the top of Yarnell Mountain on June 28 and saw it retreat the next day, only to return Monday. She was among seven people who crammed their belongings into two small cars and fled about 4 p.m.
“It was a wall of solid black,” she said, recalling the scene from the rearview mirror of her Ford Escort. She spent the night on a green cot at the high school.
“The hardest part is knowing that all those boys died while trying to protect our homes,” Denison said as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “And the not knowing. We don’t know if we have a place to go back to.”
Hotshot crews hike for miles into the wilderness with chainsaws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to make a gap in brush and other combustible material for a firebreak. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
“It came up very unexpectedly,” Pete Wertheim, a Prescott city spokesman, said in a telephone interview. Winds picked up in what he called a “pre-monsoon environment.”
“It made an unpredictable situation for the fire shifting,” Wertheim said.
The Prescott crew in 2012 logged 108 days fighting wildfires across the U.S., according to the city’s budget. Members had been working in New Mexico and returned to Arizona to fight a fire in the Granite Mountain Recreation Area.
The dead represented 20 percent of Prescott’s fire force, he said.
It was the third-deadliest loss of U.S. emergency personnel in a wildfire, according to the Quincy, Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit education and research group.
Eighty-six firefighters died in the Devil’s Broom wildfire in Silverton, Idaho, in 1910 and 29 perished in Griffith Park, California, in 1933.
The United States suffered its greatest loss of firefighter lives on Sept. 11, 2011, when 340 died responding to the terrorist attacks in Lower Manhattan.
The federal government is assisting and will remain in contact with state and local authorities to provide the support they need, President Barack Obama said Monday in a statement.
“They were 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,” Obama said.
Bykowicz reported from Wickenberg, Young from Trenton, N.J.