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

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid