Arizona wildfire out of control after firefighters’ deaths

Blaze engulfs over 8,000 acres as winds and high temperatures threaten ‘erratic’ shifts

Mon, Jul 1, 2013, 16:36

A fast-moving Arizona wildfire that killed 19 elite firefighters over the weekend has engulfed more than 8,370 acres and continues to rage unchecked, state officials have said.

Arizona’s Incident Management Team warned that gusty winds and high temperatures today could result in “erratic” shifts in the fire, which has grown quickly in size from about 1,000 acres yesterday.

Additional crews and equipment were due at the scene near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles (128 km) northwest of Phoenix, officials said in a statement.

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Forecasts mention a 20 per cent chance of thunderstorms and possible rain showers, they added.

The elite team of firefighters were killed yesterday while battling a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed scores of homes and forced the evacuation of two small towns northwest of Phoenix, authorities said.

The tragedy ranked as the greatest loss of life among firefighters from a single wildland blaze in the US in 80 years, since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to National Fire Protection Association records.

Art Morrison of the Arizona State Forestry Commission said the firefighters, members of a specially trained “hot shot” team who serve as the shock troops of a firefighting force, lost their lives when they were overtaken by swiftly moving flames.

“It was a hand crew, a hot shot crew,” he said. “In normal circumstances, when you’re digging fire lines, you make sure you have a good escape route, and you have a safety zone set up. Evidently, their safety zone wasn’t big enough, and the fire just overtook them. By the time the other firefighters got in, they didn’t survive.”

President Barack Obama expressed his condolences to the families of the 19 firefighters. Mr Obama said the firefighters were heroes and highly skilled professionals who “put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet”.

Mr Obama, who is travelling in Africa, says the federal government would be in close contact with state and local officials in Arizona to provide support.

The doomed crew initially was reported missing before word came from the US Wildland Fire Aviation service that the team had perished in the blaze, which erupted on Friday near the small town of Yarnell about 120km northwest of Phoenix.

Prescott fire chief Dan Fraijo called the tragedy “one of the worst wildfire disasters that’s ever taken place.” He said he did not know the circumstances that led to the 19 deaths.

He said one member of the 20-man crew happened to be in a separate location and survived. There was no immediate information on his condition.

The blaze, stoked by strong, dry winds and a heatwave that has baked the region in triple-digit temperatures, has charred about 2,000 acres of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands, fire officials said.

Local television news footage showed an unbroken line of flames stretching along a ridgeline, sending gray brown smoke billowing into the evening sky. Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley, alerting residents through reverse 911 emergency calls to homes and sending sheriff’s deputies door to door, according to the InciWeb fire news site of the US Forest Service. The two towns, which lie southwest of Prescott, Arizona, are home to roughly 1,000 people.

Steve Skurja, spokesman for Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, said at least 200 structures have been destroyed by the fire, most of them in Yarnell, a community consisting largely of retirees. The Daily Courier Prescott newspaper said the dead were members of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots team.

“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Governor 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.”

Agencies