Shock over loss of 19 Ariz. firefighters in wildfire

Updated 10:30 p.m. ET

YARNELL, Ariz. Trapped by a wildfire that exploded tenfold in a matter of hours, a crack team of firefighting "Hotshots" broke out their portable emergency shelters and rushed to climb into the foil-lined, heat-resistant bags before the flames swept over them.

By the time the flames had passed, 19 men lay dead in the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.

The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based in the small town of Prescott, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time, authorities said.

The deaths plunged the town into mourning, and Arizona's governor called it "as dark a day I can remember" and ordered flags flown at half-staff.

"We are heartbroken about what happened," President Barack Obama said while on a visit to Africa. He predicted the tragedy will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly wildfires.

More than 1,000 people turned out Monday to a Prescott gymnasium to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the Hotshot firefighters. Those in the crowd rocked children in their arms, wiped away tears and applauded robustly after each set of remarks, often rising to their feet. Speakers at the memorial quoted heavily from Scripture.

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said the Hotshots laid down their lives not only for their friends and loved ones, but for people they didn't even know.

In Africa, President Barack Obama also took a moment Monday to send his condolences to friends and families of the victims. He said he was "heartbroken about what happened" and that his administration is prepared to help Arizona investigate how the deaths happen. He also predicted the incident will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly fires.

The City of Prescott identified the 19 men Monday. The majority of the firefighters were in their early-to-mid 20s:

  • Andrew Ashcraft, 29
  • Anthony Rose, 23
  • Christopher MacKenzie, 30
  • Clayton Whitted, 28
  • Dustin Deford, 24
  • Garret Zuppinger, 27
  • Grant McKee, 21
  • Jesse Steed, 36
  • Joe Thurston, 32
  • John Percin, 24
  • Kevin Woyjeck, 21
  • Eric Marsh, 43
  • Robert Caldwell, 23
  • Scott Norris, 28
  • Sean Misner, 26
  • Travis Carter, 31
  • Travis Turbyfill, 27
  • Wade Parker, 22
  • William Warneke, 25

Brendan McDonough, 21, was the only survivor from the crew.

The windblown, lightning-sparked fire — which had exploded to about 13 square miles by Monday morning — also destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department said.

Residents huddled in shelters and restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.

It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.

Brian Klimowski, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Flagstaff office, said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. It's not known how powerful the winds were, but they were enough to cause the fire to grow in size from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours Sunday.

The hotshot team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to 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.

As a last-ditch effort at survival, members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with a tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said.

"It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions," Fraijo said.

Officials are still investigating what may have caused the fire, but climate change has been considered a factor in the increasing intensity of wildfires in the West. Tom Boatner, chief of fire operations for the federal government, told "60 Minutes" the expectations of heat and humidity has changed greatly in the 3 decades he spend on the fire line.

"A fire of this size and intensity in this country would have been extremely rare 15, 20 years ago," Boatner said. "They're commonplace these days."

Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their shelters.

The flames apparently enveloped the fire shelters. Autopsies were scheduled to determine how the firefighters died.

Gov. Jan Brewer's voice caught several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School.

"I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today," she said.

On the bleachers, two women held each other and wept into tissues. An elderly man clutched a wooden walking stick and gazed at the ground. Many of the residents were red-eyed, and listened with their hands over their mouths.

A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based. Prescott resident Keith Gustafson showed up and placed 19 water bottles in the shape of a heart.

"When I heard about this, it just hit me hard," he said. "It hit me like a ton of bricks."

Comments