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Arizona firefighters report progress; mourn fallen

While struggling to put out a wildfire outside the town of Yarnell, Arizona on Wednesday, firefighters took a moment to remember the 19 Hotshot crew members who died there. The fire is now nearly 50 percent contained and an investigation into the events leading up to the deaths is underway.

By Felicia FonsecaAssociated Press, Tami AbdollahAssociated Press / July 3, 2013

A firefighting helicopter takes off to do a drop of fire retardant material as the fire agencies battle a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, Wednesday. Authorities report progress in the attempt to contain the wildfire that claimed the lives of 19 members of an elite firefighting crew.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

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YARNELL, Ariz.

Hundreds of firefighters battling a blaze outside the mountain town of Yarnell came off the line Wednesday to salute a procession of fire vehicles that had been left by 19 elite Hotshot crew members killed in the line of duty.

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The firefighters gathered along a highway to honor the Prescott-based unit on the same day that they reported significant progress in controlling the deadly blaze. The fire is now 45 percent contained, up from 8 percent earlier in the day, and authorities say the figure could change in the next day as they compile a more complete picture with sophisticated mapping techniques.

The vehicles were driven by fellow Prescott firefighters. One of the trucks held backpacks, water jugs and coolers. Another was emblazoned with the group's motto, in Latin: "To be, rather than to seem." As the vehicles drove through downtown Prescott, they were greeted by a large crowd that lined the street and waved flags and cheered the motorcade.

Fire crews across the U.S. also paused throughout the day to remember the Granite Mountain Hotshots and recognize the dangers firefighters face, said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the multiagency Southwest Incident Command Team. Gov. Jan Brewer said she would fly Arizona flags at half-staff for 19 days for each firefighter lost.

A memorial service for all 19 firefighters has been set for Tuesday in the city of Prescott Valley at an arena that is home to a minor league hockey team. The arena can hold 6,000 people, and an overflow area may be set up outside.

"One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is we don't forget," he said, adding that crews pay tribute every year to those who have died in the nation's worst firefighting disasters.

"And we will remember this one," he said, his voice shaking. "It's tough."

In the biggest loss of U.S. firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts on Sunday turned what was believed to be a manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team of Hotshots, most of them in the prime of their lives.

Fire investigators seeking to determine what went wrong were expected to make their way Wednesday to the site where the bodies were found to get their first look at the scene, a mountainous spot near Yarnell, said Mike Dudley of the U.S. Forest Service who is on the team looking into the deaths.

The investigation will include examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports. They'll also surely talk to the sole survivor of the blaze, the lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions and heading straight for them.

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