TUCSON — Nineteen elite firefighters were killed in a raging Arizona wildfire stoked by record heat and high winds, marking the greatest loss of life among firefighters from a single US wildland blaze in 80 years.
The Prescott, Arizona, Fire Department crew was killed yesterday when a fast-moving wildfire they were battling trapped them near Yarnell, a town about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
“It had to be a perfect storm in order for this to happen. Their situational awareness and their training was at such a high level that it’s unimaginable that this has even happened,” Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward told ABC’s Today programme.
He called the deaths of the crew, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, “devastating”. The cause of the deaths was unknown and was under investigation.
Ward told ABC’s Good Morning America the men had put up fire shelters, a tent-like safety device designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air, in a last-ditch effort to survive.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said late yesterday he did not know the circumstances that led to the 19 deaths.
He said one member of the 20-man crew had been in a separate location and survived. There was no immediate information on his condition.
“We teach our people to be safe, to take safety precautions. Sometimes, unfortunately, it just doesn’t work out,” he told reporters at a news conference after darkness fell.
He said the unpredictable weather paired with tinder-dry conditions can be a volatile mix for those on the front lines of wildfires.
The Hotshots were highly trained firefighters with tough standards of fitness. Firefighters were required to take an 80-hour critical training course and refresher yearly and offered fire safety courses, according to the group’s website.
Each firefighter had to pass a test of carrying a work pack, as well as run 1.5 miles in 10 minutes 35 seconds and complete 40 situps in 60 seconds, 25 pushups in 60 seconds, and seven pullups.
“Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure,” the group’s website said.
The blaze, called the Yarnell Hills fire, was ignited by lightning on Friday. It has charred more than 2,000 acres of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands, fire officials said. (Reuters)