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.
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.
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.
At one point, the blaze raced four miles in just 20 minutes, fed by the dry brush and 41 mph winds, said Yavapai County Sheriff's Capt. Jeff Newnum.
Nearly 600 firefighters were fighting the blaze Wednesday, which has burned about 13 square miles. Hundreds were evacuated and crews erected perimeters around the homes.
The hope is to allow residents back into their homes over the weekend and contain the fire by July 12.
The blaze has damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes and buildings, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office. Officials earlier had provided different estimates ranging from 50 to 250 homes and other buildings lost in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. The number has fluctuated because of limited access to the community.
Reporters on Wednesday were allowed into a section of the fire area, where charred pine trees resembled burnt toothpicks sticking out of the hillsides.
The ground was covered in a blackened patchwork, and the higher mountains behind the hills were speckled by pink retardant. The yards and driveways of a few isolated homes were marked by the spots of controlled fires set by firefighters to beat back the blaze.
The area was dusty and smoky but there were no visible flames.
Fire officials did not take journalists near where the bodies of the 19 firefighters were found.
Only one member of the crew, identified Tuesday as 21-year-old lookout Brendan McDonough, survived. After radioing others about the growing danger, McDonough made it to safety, while the rest were overtaken by the blaze.
The team of investigators, comprised of forest managers and safety experts, was expected to release a preliminary report in days.
"We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible," Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said in a statement.
Safety standards for wildland firefighters were toughened nearly 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on Colorado's Storm King Mountain, and investigators found a number of errors in the way the blaze was fought.
In what fire authorities said was an eerily similar situation to the Arizona blaze, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging on Storm King in Colorado, creating 100-foot flames. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.
Under the toughened policies, no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather and post lookouts.
Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.
Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Bob Christie in Phoenix, Brian Skoloff in Yarnell, Hannah Dreier in Yarnell, and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.