Powerful winds may stoke deadly Arizona fire

Updated 6:36 p.m. ET

PRESCOTT, Arizona Wind more powerful than the gusts that swept an Arizona wildfire over the weekend, killing 19 members of an elite firefighting crew, were expected to whip up the flames Tuesday as crews work to corral the blaze feasting on tinder-dry vegetation.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Wallmann said powerful wind is forecast, with a worst-case scenario of 80 mph gusts. He also said possible weekend thunderstorms could complicate efforts, too.

"The winds are going to be a serious factor for us today," said fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner.

Some heavy federal hitters will soon assist the approximately 450 firefighters already on the ground when three U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft specially equipped to drop fire retardant will arrive in Arizona from Colorado on later Tuesday, reports CBS affiliate KPHO in Phoenix.

The aircraft can drop 3,000 gallons of retardant a quarter-mile long and 60 yards wide in about 5 seconds, according to officials. It can refuel and return with more retardant in 20 minutes.

Even with all that help, full containment isn't expected until about July 15, fire officials said.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports that residents of Yarnell were told at a crowded community gathering Tuesday it could be five more days before they are allowed to return to see if their homes survived. The town remains too hot and dangerous.

"Don't let the calm nature of this fire lull you in," said the fire's incident commander, Clay Templin, told reporters. "It can come back to life very quickly."

Fire spokeswoman Karen Takai said it remains unclear how many houses have burned, but crews were working to figure out the scope of the destruction. The current estimate is 50 homes lost.

"It is very difficult for the public out here right now. They're out of their homes, there's a lot of uncertainty for them," she said.

For the 19 firefighters killed, violent wind gusts turned a lightning-caused forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.

In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters - members of a highly skilled Hotshot crew - unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant shelters and rushed to cover themselves on the ground. But the success of the shelters depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging fire.

Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.

The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 acres in a matter of hours, and Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo said the wind and fire made it impossible for the firefighters to flee around 3 p.m. Sunday.

"The winds were coming from the southeast, blowing to the west, away from Yarnell and populated areas. Then the wind started to blow in. The wind kicked up to 50 mph gusts and it blew east, south, west - every which way," Scamardo said. "What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back, and trapped them."

During a deeply emotional memorial Monday evening in Prescott, firefighters walked down the bleachers in a silent gymnasium full of mourners, their heavy work boots drumming a march on the wooden steps.

More than 1,000 people gathered in the gym on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus as others throughout the state and beyond also mourned the deaths of the 19 Prescott-based firefighters killed Sunday outside nearby Yarnell. The day marked the nation's deadliest for fire crews since Sept. 11, 2001.

Authorities are investigating to figure out what exactly went wrong after the wind suddenly changed direction. Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, will be the lead in the probe and will aim to put out a report in the coming days with preliminary information, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.

The multi-agency group of investigators arrived Monday and was being briefed in Phoenix. Judith Downing, a spokeswoman for the taskforce, said they would go to the fire scene Tuesday.

At last count, about 500 firefighters were on the scene, with more on the way. The fire has burned 8,400 acres, or about 13 square miles, as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperature soaring.

Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, and it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.

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