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Arizona wildfire: Details emerge on tragedy that killed 19 hotshots

As more becomes known about the devastating Arizona wildfire that killed 19 members of a hotshot team, broader questions are being raised, including roles of residential development and climate change.

By Staff writer / July 6, 2013

Photos of the 19 fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters and the lone survivor of the fatal blaze hang outside a fire station in Prescott, Ariz. Nearly a week after 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters died battling a blaze near Yarnell, Ariz., mourners continue to visit and grow the memorial.

Julie Jacobson/AP

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Ashland, Oregon

As more becomes known about the devastating Arizona wildfire that killed 19 members of a “hotshot” team, broader questions are being raised:

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How to address the spread of residential expansion into the “wildland-urban interface” where homes quickly become fuel – particularly in areas of the mountain West where zoning and other government regulations are very unpopular.

And to what extent have changing climate patterns become a cause of such blazes at a time when the US Forest Service is having to spend increasing amounts of its budget on firefighting?

Based on officials’ initial analysis and a map of how the tragedy unfolded compiled by the Associated Press, “an erratic wildfire driven by ferocious and shifting winds curled around the location of a team of Arizona Hotshot firefighters, cutting off their access to a safety zone and creating a death trap that quickly consumed them,” the AP reports.

“In just one hour, between 4 and 5 p.m., winds shifted 180 degrees and nearly doubled in strength to 41 mph. Photographic evidence suggests the fire’s enormous mushroom cloud collapsed on itself, sending smoke and heat into canyons,” The Arizona Republic reported Saturday. “The phenomenon is similar to a microburst – hot air from the fire rises and is rapidly cooled when it meets the monsoon front. As the cooled air becomes heavier, it rapidly falls to the ground, creating highly destructive winds that feed the fire and spread it in all directions.”

The 20th member of the hotshot crew – 21-year-old Brendan McDonough – had been posted as a lookout on a nearby ridge. He radioed a warning about shifting winds, and when his own position became perilous he headed to safety.

“He did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward has been quoted as saying.

But in the end it was too late for his comrades. Surrounded by fire, they deployed tent-like individual shelters in hopes that they could survive as the blaze roared over them, but that last-ditch protection measure proved inadequate to the size and intensity of the fire and all perished.

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