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High Fire Danger Today

19 Firefighters Killed Battling Fast Moving Ariz. Wildfire

By: CBS/AP
By: CBS/AP

Triple-digit heat and 45 mile-per-hour wind gusts fueled an out-of-control blaze Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing 19 members of an elite hot shot fire crew.

It was the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. in 80 years.

The hot shot crew was forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters -- tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat -- when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesperson Art Morrison told The Associated Press.

The same crew had been profiled by local Arizona media last year as they prepared for the fire season and again this year as they fought a fire burning near Prescott, Az. One of those profiles, by the Cronkite News Service, featured the group practicing a worst-case scenario drill in which they demonstrate the deployment of emergency fire shelters. You can watch that video, below:


Special thanks to Cronkite News for the use of their video. Read the full story by Connor Radnovich / Cronkite News, here.

The fire also destroyed an estimated 200 homes, Morrison said. Dry grass near the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla fed the fast-moving blaze, which was whipped up by wind and raced through the homes, he said.

CBS Phoenix, Ariz. Affiliate KPHO-TV reports at least eight firefighters suffered injuries and were taken to a local hospital. The extent of their injuries wasn't known.

The men were trying to help get the blaze under control when the fire suddenly shifted, taking them by surprise.

"This fire was very radical in its behavior, said Michael Reichling, a spokesman for the Arizona State Forestry Division. "The fields were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the winds were coming out of the south. It turned around on us because of the monsoon action this afternoon. They were just caught up in a very bad situation."

The fire still burned late Sunday, with flames lighting up the night sky in the forest above Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Most people had evacuated from the town, and no injuries or other deaths were reported.

The fire started after a lightning strike on Friday and spread to some 8,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions, state forestry spokesperson Carrie Dennett told CBS News.

Early Monday, there was still zero containment on the fire, CBS News' John Blackstone reported.

The disaster all but wiped out the 20-member Hotshot fire crew based in Prescott, leaving the city's fire department reeling.

"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said at a news conference Sunday evening. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."

"Every precaution is always taken," Fraijo said. "The trouble is, sometimes it's such an erratic situation. When you have that much fuel, in those dry conditions, it becomes very unpredictable."

All 19 members were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, elite firefighters who often hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.

The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona, Fraijo said.

"By the time they got there, it was moving very quickly," he told the AP of Sunday's fire.

The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., which killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames. The association website lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles, which killed 29. The most firefighters - 340 - were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, according to the website.

President Obama expressed his condolences to the families of the 19 firefighters in a statement issued in Africa, where his trip continued Monday, calling the firefighters heroes and highly skilled professionals who "put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet." He said the federal government was assisting state and local officials.

"This is as dark a day as I can remember," Gov. 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."

Brewer said she would travel to the area Monday.

In a statement, Sen. John McCain called the "devastating loss" "a reminder of the grave risks our firefighters take every day on our behalf in Arizona and in communities across this nation. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten."

Other high-profile Arizonans expressed their shock on Twitter, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords who called it "absolutely devastating news." U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tweeted that he was "sick with the news."


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