In Arizona’s worst-ever wildfire responder tragedy, 19 firefighters battling the fast-moving Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona have now been confirmed dead in the flames. This is also the highest number of responders killed in a single wildfire anywhere in the nation for at least 80 years. All the responders came from the Prescott Fire Department, said Wade Ward, also a member of that troop. The Daily Courier Prescott newspaper said the dead were members of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots team.
“It was a hand crew, a hot shot crew,” Art Morrison of the Arizona State Forestry Commission told CNN, according to Reuters. “In normal circumstances, when you’re digging fire lines, you make sure you have a good escape route, and you have a safety zone set up. Evidently, their safety zone wasn’t big enough, and the fire just overtook them. By the time the other firefighters got in, they didn’t survive.”
Lightning apparently started the wildfire late Friday afternoon in dry chaparral and grass on a ridge lying 1.5 miles west of Yarnell, Arizona (about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix). Still a relatively small blaze, but spreading quickly, the fire now covers over 2,000 acres from along the ridgeline. Officials expect that about 250 structures will be destroyed. The wildfire is running uphill with flames 15 to 20 feet long. With gusty wind and slope alignment, responders are seeing extreme fire behavior, and the growth potential of the blaze is high. Both short- and mid-range spotting are widening the fire’s spread.
Two hundred fifty firefighters have been working on two objectives: continuing to attack the fire along its eastern flank, and trying to protect homes at risk in the Yarnell area. As well as the dead, others of the firefighters have been reported injured.
The record-breaking heat wave in the West is not helping the Arizona fire suppression effort. Humidity is low (17%) and the temperature was 101 degrees today, with winds gusting up to 22 mph SSW. Thunderstorms were expected this afternoon; however, the closest storms brought less than a quarter-inch of rain.
The State Forestry Department and the Bureau of Land Management are jointly managing the fire. A senior management team will be joining the effort.
Personnel and equipment include 16 engines, 8 support water tenders, 2 crash/rescue vehicles, 2 structure protection vehicles, 1 dozer, 1 hotshot crew (many, if not all, deceased), 7 type 2 handcrews, and 1 camp crew. Four hundred responders, including federal firefighters, are now expected. A vertical landing air tanker, 4 SEATs, 6 helicopters, and miscellaneous other resources are working overhead, with more on order.
A reverse 911 call has been sent, three roadblocks implemented, and the Sheriff’s Office is going door-to-door to alert residents. The towns of Yarnell and Peeples Valley and Inah and the Double A Bar Ranch are being evacuated.
A large animal shelter and a people and small animal shelter are being opened in Prescott. The Red Cross Safe and Well program, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and accessible in both English and Spanish, is available to evacuees and those concerned about loved ones.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covers energy and environmental issues. She followed events and policy at last fall’s 18th UN climate change summit meeting in Doha, Qatar. Sandy has also reported on extreme weather disasters, including the massive summer wildfires of the past few years and Superstorm Sandy (no relation).
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