Arizona blaze rages on as crews cope with death of 19 firefighters
Yarnell Hill Fire, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, has grown to some 8,374 acres
The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the City of Prescott in Prescott, Arizona. The elite team of 19 firemen were killed on Sunday in one of deadliest US firefighting disasters in decades as flames raced through dry brush and grass in central Arizona.
A wind-driven wildfire continued to rage out of control in central Arizona yesterday as crews battling the blaze coped with both the growing fire and the deaths of 19 colleagues from an elite firefighting crew who had come to help fight the blaze.
The Yarnell Hill Fire, near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, has grown to some 8,374 acres. Fire officials said they expected a difficult day with unpredictable shifting winds, similar to those that led to the deaths of the firefighters on Sunday. As of yesterday morning, with temperatures in the area already higher than 90 degrees, the blaze was “zero per cent controlled,” said Mike Reichling, a spokesman for the Tempe Fire Department.
“The weather has caused havoc,” he said. Authorities said the winds, combined with a 10-year drought and a dry, thick brush in the area, had helped the blaze spread. The fire was sparked on Friday afternoon by a lightning strike, authorities said.
The firefighters killed in the blaze were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a specialist team of wildfire fighters. Their names have not yet been released.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, said. “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.”
President Barack Obama issued a statement yesterday as he was ending a visit to South Africa. “Yesterday, 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. 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.
“Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”
The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona. The unit was established in 2002. In a Facebook post, the US Wildland Fire Aviation Service asked “for prayers for the families and friends of these brave men and women”.
The fire had “brought down half of the town of Yarnell”, Mr Reichling said. “It has decimated that town.”
The town had been evacuated previously, he said. A reverse 911 call was sent, and sheriff’s deputies alerted residents. Flames were travelling north, away from the small community of Yarnell, 4,800 feet up a mountain in central Arizona.
Some residents there left to go to neighbouring Peeples Valley, where an evacuation order was in place, to help people pack up and leave their homes. Others stayed behind, watching the bush burn in the distance or, like Nina Bill Overmyer (66), taking a nap.
Suddenly, the wind shifted, and the flames changed direction, rushing through the forest straight toward Yarnell. Overmyer’s husband, Chuck, woke her up, and they picked up what they could.
By the time they came back to get their dogs, the blaze was roaring just above them, rolling down the mountain and swallowing everything around: the town’s library, community centre and diner.