A crew of 19 firefighters perished battling an Arizona blaze Sunday (June 30). The men used a protective tarp to try and shield themselves from the fast-moving wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., roughly 90 miles northwest of Phoenix.
The catastrophic loss was the biggest of its kind in nearly 80 years. “We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
They were part of an elite squad confronting wildfires on the front line, setting up barriers to stop the spreading destruction. But in their unpredictable world, it doesn’t take much to turn a situation dangerously deadly.
In this case, a wind shift and other factors caused a central Arizona fire, which now spans more than 8,000 acres, to become erratic, said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.
The inferno proved too much, even for the shelters the 19 firefighters carried as a last-ditch survival tool.
“The fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south. It turned around on us because of monsoon action,” Reichling told CNN affiliate KNXV. “That’s what caused the deaths.
The firefighters were killed Sunday while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, northwest of Phoenix. Among the dead was Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, according to his father, John Marsh.
Gov. Jan Brewer called the loss “unbearable” during a Monday news conference and said she understood the pain people are dealing with.
“For now, we mourn,” she said.
The wildfire, which is considered the deadliest in state history, is not contained at all, according to Brewer’s office and other authorities.
There are no other reported injuries from the blaze, Reichling said.
“As we face the day the highest priority is for the fallen comrades,” said Roy Hall, an incident commander with the state forestry division. “We got a lot of hotshot crews in the nation, and they are the elite of the ground firefighters. They’re highly trained and highly specialized. They are a younger generation. That’s the tragedy of it, that lives would be lost of such a young group.”
A West Coast heat wave will bring temps in the area above 100 degree this week, which may have contributed to the veracity of the blaze. Remaining firefighters will tackle the eastern side of the area to save homes. 250 residences were reportedly destroyed in the fire.
President Obama, whose at the tail end of his Africa trip, released a statement calling the men “heroes,” for their work. “They were heroes – highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way toprotect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.”
See photos below.
Photos: ABC News/Twitter/KPHO-TV/CBS-5/Reuters