News / USA

Deadly Fire Engulfed 19 Arizona Firefighters in Seconds

Investigators Seek Answers in Arizona Firefighter Deathsi
X
July 02, 2013 12:06 AM
Authorities are investigating the deaths of 19 firefighters who were killed in a wildfire in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona on Sunday. All were members of the elite team called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based 150 kilometers northwest of Phoenix. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, it was the largest toll in a single wilderness fire in 80 years.

Related story by M. O'Sullivan - Investigators Seek Answers in Arizona Firefighter Deaths

Reuters
— An elite squad of 19 Arizona firemen killed in the worst U.S. wildland firefighting tragedy in 80 years apparently was outflanked by wind-whipped flames in seconds, before some could scramble into cocoon-like personal shelters.

Details of Sunday's deaths of all but one member of a specially trained, 20-man “Hotshots” team remained vague a day after they perished in a blaze that destroyed scores of homes and forced the evacuation of two towns in central Arizona. But fragments of the firefighters' final moments painted some of the picture as investigators launched a probe into exactly how the disaster unfolded.

Fire officials said the young men fell victim to a highly volatile mix of erratic winds gusting to gale-force intensity, low humidity, a sweltering heat wave and thick, drought-parched brush that had not burned in some 40 years.

The deaths brought an outpouring of tributes from political leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who is on an official trip to Africa. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called the deaths “one of our state's darkest, most devastating days” and ordered state flags flown at half staff from Monday through Wednesday. 

The blaze was sparked on Friday by lightning near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles (128 km) northwest of Phoenix. It was still raging unchecked on Monday after scorching some 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands.

Still, conditions faced by the “Hotshots,” who fight flames at close range with hand tools, were typical for the wildfires they are trained to battle, fire officials said.

They were trapped as a windstorm kicked up and the fire suddenly exploded on Sunday, said Peter Andersen, a former Yarnell fire chief who was helping the firefighting effort.

“The smoke had turned and was blowing back on us,” Andersen said. “It looked almost like a smoke tornado, and the winds were going every which way.”

The powerful gusts abruptly split the fire, driving it in two directions, then pushing flames back in on the Hotshot crew, who were working on one flank of the fire front, he said. 

Running Out of Time

The firefighters deployed their personal shelters, capsule-like devices designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air, in a last-ditch effort to survive, officials said.

Andersen said some of the men on the ground made it into their shelters and some did not, according to an account relayed by a ranger helicopter crew flying over the area.

“There was nothing they [helicopter crew] could do to get to them,” he said.

Prescott Fire Department Chief Dan Fraijo said Hotshot crews typically establish a secure “safety zone” to which they can retreat if flames start to close in on them.

  • Stephen Grady reads notes left at the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station in Prescott, Arizona, July 2, 2013.
  • Linda Lambert places her hand across a plaque hanging on the fence outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station in Prescott, Arizona, July 2, 2013.
  • Casen Beyea, 3, wearing a toy fireman helmet looks at the cross for Andrew Ashcrast with his mother Christine at a memorial in Prescott, Arizona, July 2, 2013.
  • Karis Ashby, a local resident, puts up a thank you sign to firefighters in Congress, Arizona, July 1, 2013, a day after an elite squad of 19 Arizona firefighters were killed in the worst U.S. wildland fire tragedy in 80 years.
  • A photo of Wade Parker, one of 19 firefighters who died battling a fast-moving wildfire, is displayed at a makeshift memorial in Prescott, Arizone, July 1, 2013.
  • An aerial view of a section of the town of Yarnell, Arizona destroyed by a wildfire that ripped throught the town, July 1, 2013.
  • The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the City of Prescott, Arizona, July 1, 2013.
  • Firefighters embrace as a group during a memorial service in Prescott, Arizona, July 1, 2013.
  • A tribute message for firefighters is displayed on the windows of a coffee shop in Prescott, Arizona, July 1, 2013.
  • A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Arizona, June 30, 2013.
  • In this photo shot by firefighter Andrew Ashcraft on June 30, 2013, members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots watch a growing wildfire that later swept over and killed the crew of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Arizona.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley. The two towns are southwest of Prescott and home to roughly 1,000 people.

Officials said on Sunday at least 200 structures, mostly homes, had been destroyed, most of them in Yarnell, a community consisting largely of retirees, but the figure could rise.

Yarnell, ArizonaYarnell, Arizona
x
Yarnell, Arizona
Yarnell, Arizona
The so-called Yarnell Hills blaze was one of dozens of wildfires in several western U.S. states in recent weeks in what experts say could be one of the worst fire seasons on record.

Sunday's disaster in Arizona marks the highest death toll among firefighters from a U.S. wildland blaze since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The association lists seven incidents in the United States during the past century that killed as many or more firefighters as Sunday's in Arizona. The highest toll was 340 killed in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

Arizona Forestry Commission spokesman Mike Reichling said one member of the 20-man crew had been driving in a separate location and survived unhurt.

Evacuee Rick McKenzie, 53, a bow hunter and ranch caretaker, said the fire exploded on Sunday with flames 30 to 40 feet (nine to 13 meters) high. He said he had warned the Hotshots about the dense oak woods where they would be working.

“I said, 'If this fire sweeps down the mountain to the lower hills where all this thick brush is, it's going to blow up, guys, you need to watch it,”' McKenzie said.

Related video footage from Arizona wildfire scene: 

Related video of Arizona wildfiresi
X
July 01, 2013 1:42 PM
U.S. officials say a team of 19 firefighters died Sunday while battling an Arizona wildfire about 130 kilometers northwest of Phoenix. The United States Wildland Firefighters Association confirmed the deaths on its Facebook page. A state forestry official, Art Morrison, told CNN the firefighters were an elite crew. He said it appeared the fire overtook them, and by the time other firefighters reached them, they had been killed.

You May Like

Diplomats Work to Extend Israeli-Palestinian Cease-Fire

US Secretary of State John Kerry, diplomats from France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Qatar gathered in Paris Saturday to discuss crisis More

Photogallery US Defense Department Warns of Arms to Eastern Ukraine

‘Imminent’ delivery of Russian rocket launcher poses threat to civilians, US says More

Video Researchers: Africa Genetically Modified Crops Held Back by Scaremongering

GM crops offer best hope of increasing productivity and coping with climate change in Africa, according to co-author of Chatham House report More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train in Underwater Labi
X
George Putic
July 25, 2014 7:25 PM
In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid