By Holly Yan
1 July 2013
(CNN) – They were part of an elite squad who confronted wildfires up close, setting up barriers to stop their destructive spread.
But the inferno blazing across central Arizona proved too much.
The 19 firefighters were killed Sunday while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, northwest of Phoenix. It was the deadliest day for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks. And it is the deadliest wildland fire since 1933, according to a list from the U.S. National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Twenty-five firefighters died when a blaze burned in light chaparral near Griffith Park, California.
"Our entire crew was lost," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told reporters Sunday night. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet. Right now, we're in crisis."
The tragedy killed about 20% of the Prescott Fire Department. Fraijo said one member of the team was not with the other crew members and survived.
Authorities believe lightning sparked the Yarnell Hill fire on Friday. By Sunday night, it had scorched more than 6,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 structures, incident commander Mike Reichling said.
Billows of thick black smoke covered the sky as the giant flames leaped from one stretch of parched land to another.
The wildfire also forced evacuations in Peeples Valley and Yarnell, but no civilian injuries were reported.
Drivers fleeing the area were chased by dark plumes filling the air. Some evacuees paused to look from afar, wondering if the flames had torched their homes.
The blaze hadn't touched Prescott yet. But like many other fire departments across the state, the Prescott team jumped in to help.
The firefighters were members of a "hotshot" crew, tasked with digging a firebreak and creating an escape route.
"A hotshot crew are the elite firefighters," state forestry spokesman Art Morrison said. "They're usually (a) 20-person crew, and they're the ones who actually go in and dig the fire line, cut the brush to make a fuel break. And so they would be as close to the fire as they felt they safely could."
"In normal circumstances, when you're digging fire line, you make sure you have a good escape route, and you have a safety zone set up," Morrison said. "Evidently, their safety zone wasn't big enough, and the fire just overtook them."
Fraijo, the fire chief, said he did not know the exact circumstances surrounding the firefighters' deaths and wouldn't speculate on a cause. But he said drought conditions, combined with winds that whipped unpredictably, have made battling the flames especially difficult. [more]