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

On Everest, Helicopters Rescue Stranded Climbers

Choppers transport some of more than 100 mountaineers trapped after deadly quake, avalanches More

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

In 2005, a Paris suburb exploded into violence after two teenagers were electrocuted as they hid from police; since then, somethings have changed, others not More

US, Japan Announce Historic Revision of Defense Cooperation Guidelines

Nations say new guidelines will be 'cornerstone for peace and security' in Asia-Pacific region while also serving as 'platform for a more stable international security environment' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europei
X
Henry Ridgwell
April 26, 2015 10:36 PM
Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video ‘Angel of the Migrants’ Helps Desperate Syrians Arriving in Europe

Waves of migrants are continuing to arrive on the shores of southern Italy from North Africa. After their dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, they face an unknown future in Europe. In the Sicilian city of Catania there is an activist dedicated to helping the refugees on their journey.
Video

Video Ten Years After Riots, France Searches for Answers to Neglected Suburbs

January’s terrorist attacks and fears of more to come are casting a spotlight on France’s neglected suburbs. Home to many immigrants, and sometimes hubs of crime, they were rocked by rioting a decade ago. Lisa Bryant visited the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 violence first broke out, and has this report about what has changed and what has not.
Video

Video Gay Marriage Goes Before US Supreme Court

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether gay people have a constitutional right to marriage. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the case could lead to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, or a continuation of the status quo in which individual states decide whether to recognize gay unions.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.

VOA Blogs