19 firefighters killed battling massive Arizona wildfire

According to ABC News, it was “the greatest loss of life for firefighters in a wildfire since 1933,” and “the deadliest day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11, when 340 died.”  Nineteen firefighters from an elite unit called the Hotshots died battling an immense Arizona wildfire that has grown to cover 6,000 acres.  They made their last stand at Yarnell, a town 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.  Their bodies were discovered by other firefighters who entered the area after its fires were brought under control.  Only one member of this Hotshots team survived.

The team had taken cover beneath portable fire shields – rolls of flame-resistant foil deployed after the firefighter digs in as best he can, in hopes that the fire will burn past them and present an opportunity to escape.  Fire shields are a last-ditch measure; the ABC report says this particular team had never been forced to deploy them before.

Fox News offers a profile of the team’s training and activities, noting they had already been deployed to battle two previous wildfires this year:

Before the fire near Yarnell, the group ??? one of 13 Arizona Hotshot crews ??? had been profiled in local media last year as they prepared for the fire season and this year as they took on a blaze near Prescott earlier this month.

“The Hot Shots may be fighting the fire with fire,” Prescott firefighter and spokesman Wade Ward told the Prescott Daily Courier in an interview last week. “They may be removing the fuels from the fire, or building a containment line that might be a trigger point for farther down the line.”

Ward told the newspaper members of Hotshot crews are highly trained individuals who work long hours in extreme conditions. The crews, which number roughly 100 in the U.S., often hike for miles into the wilderness with chainsaws and backpacks stuffed with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and raging fires.

Prescott fire chief Dan Fraijo said, “We’re devastated… we just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”  Other reactions, assembled by the New York Times;

???This is as dark a day as I can remember,??? Arizona???s governor, Jan Brewer, said in a statement. ???It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: fighting fires is dangerous work,??? she said. ???When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all.???

President Obama issued a statement Monday as he was ending a visit to South Africa and flying to Tanzania. ???Yesterday, 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. They were heroes ??? highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm???s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.

???Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.???

The wildfire is still raging out of control, despite the efforts of 200 firefighters to contain it.  Another 200 firefighters are on the way to join the battle.  The blaze was evidently started by a lightning strike, combined with extremely hot and dry conditions.  It’s already wiped out half of the five hundred structures in the town of Yarnell.  Conditions have been so bad that firefighters were forced to abandon their efforts to save some of these buildings.

Most of the townspeople have already been evacuated by the authorities.  Some had disregarded the evacuation order, believing that the course of the fire would take it past Yarnell, until the wind shifted and sent the fire right at them.  The New York Times chronicled a few of the panicked last-minute evacuations:

Flames were traveling north, away from the small community of Yarnell, 4,800 feet up a mountain between Wickenburg and Prescott, in central Arizona. Some residents there left to go to neighboring Peeples Valley, where an evacuation order was in place, to help people pack up and leave their homes. Others stayed behind, watching the parched bush burn in the distance or, like Nina Bill Overmyer, 66, taking a nap.

Suddenly, the wind shifted and the flames changed direction, rushing through the forest straight toward Yarnell. Ms. Overmyer???s husband, Chuck, woke her up and they picked up what they could. He took his motorcycle. She took their Dodge truck, pulling the flatbed trailer bearing their lime-green Model A street rod, one of their most prized possessions. By the time they came back to get their dogs, the blaze was roaring just above them, rolling down the mountain and swallowing everything around: the town???s library, community center, diner.

Nearby, Adria Shayne, 52, grabbed her parrot, Jingles; her dog, Spanky; her cat, Gizmo; and nothing else. Her daughter-in-law, Cynthia Somers, said there was no time to think of what to take and what to leave behind ??? ???It was get up and go.??? Ms. Shayne, smoking a cigarette outside the Arrowhead Bar & Grill on the edge of Route 89 in Congress, where sheriff???s deputies had blocked traffic from going any farther north, choked up as she described her ???little nice house,??? the only one in town with a white picket fence.

???Oh, God,??? she lamented. ???It???s all gone.???

19 red roses have been woven into the fence outside Fire Station 7 in Prescott by family and friends, to honor the fallen.  Other tokens of respect have been added to the roses, including a well-worn cap from another fire crew.

Sad condolences to the families of the heroic firefighters who lost their lives, and prayers for the safety of all those who remain locked in battle with the deadly blaze.