An Arizona Forestry spokesman has confirmed that 19 members of an “elite fire crew” were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on Sunday.
The 19 firefighters who were lost were members of a 20 man crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and were a part of the Prescott Fire Department. Established in 2002, the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been deployed all over the country to help fight some of the biggest and most severe fires in US history, including the 2009 Station Fire, the largest fire in LA County’s history. They were deployed in Yarnell to help contain the 2,000 acre fire that has reportedly destroyed nearly 300 structures and forced the entire town of Yarnell, home to about 700 people, to be evacuated.
In recent weeks, the team had been deployed to both New Mexico and Prescott, AZ, to fight wildfires before being called to assist in Yarnell, “entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.”
According to the Prescott Fire Chief, Dan Fraijo, this horrific disaster has “all but wiped out the Prescott hotshot crew.” He said, “We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city. We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.” Only one member of the crew survived. Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling reported that he was “the only one who made it out because he was jockeying equipment at the time.” The survivor was in the process of moving the units truck to safety when the rest of his team was overtaken by the fire.
Official reports indicate that the team of elite firefighters were “forced to deploy their fire shelters,” which are tent-like structures designed to protect those on the front line in a wildfire from the flames, but the blaze was just “too intense” and the shelters were not up to the challenge. Hot, dry, gusty winds are believed to have blown the rapidly moving wildfire out of control, causing the team to have no way to escape. Art Morrison, a Forestry spokesman said:
If you get a real big wind event or something, all of a sudden the fire blows up and you go to your safety zone and it’s not big enough and so that’s probably what happened with this poor crew.
In normal circumstances when you’re digging fire line, 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.
Clay Templin, the Southwest incident team leader assured reporters that “the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols,” but that the combination of winds, extremely high temperatures, and the lack of any recent rainfall, coupled with the eratic nature of wildfires, “simply overwhelmed them.”
The following statement was released by President Obama concerning Sunday’s tragedy:
Yesterday, nineteen 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.
In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need.
But today, 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.
According to the Los Angeles Times, this is “the worst firefighter loss of life in a wildland blaze since 1933,” and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has called Sunday, “as dark a day as I can remember.”
As of Monday morning the wildfire had spread to over 8,000 acres and was considered 0% contained.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Arizona state authorities have identified the fallen Hotshots firefighters:
Andrew Ashcraft, 29
Robert Caldwell, 23
Travis Carter, 31
Dustin Deford, 24
Christopher MacKenzie, 30
Eric Marsh, 43
Grant McKee, 21
Sean Misner, 26
Scott Norris, 28
Wade Parker, 22
John Percin, 24
Anthony Rose, 23
Jesse Steed, 36
Joe Thurston, 32
Travis Turbyfill, 27
William Warneke, 25
Clayton Whitted, 28
Kevin Woyjeck, 21
Garret Zuppiger, 27
Photo: AP/David Kadlubowski