July 2, 2013

Powerful winds expected to whip Arizona wildfire

By Hannah Dreier and Tami Abdollah / The Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Wind more powerful than the gusts that swept an Arizona wildfire over the weekend, killing 19 members of a Hotshot crew, were expected to whip up the flames Tuesday as crews work to corral the blaze feasting on tinder-dry vegetation.

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George Murphy of the Yavapi Tribal Police pays his respects at a makeshift memorial outside the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew fire station Tuesday in Prescott, Ariz., honoring 19 firefighters killed battling a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz., Sunday.

The Associated Press

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National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Wallmann said powerful wind is forecast, with a worst-case scenario of 80 mph gusts. He also said possible weekend thunderstorms could complicate efforts, too.

"The winds are going to be a serious factor for us today," said fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner.

Fire spokeswoman Karen Takai said it remains unclear how many houses have burned, but crews were working to figure out the scope of the destruction. The current estimate is 50 homes lost.

"It is very difficult for the public out here right now. They're out of their homes, there's a lot of uncertainty for them," she said.

For the 19 firefighters killed, violent wind gusts turned a lightning-caused forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.

In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters – members of a highly skilled Hotshot crew – unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant shelters and rushed to cover themselves on the ground. But the success of the shelters depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging fire.

Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.

The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours, and Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo said the wind and fire made it impossible for the firefighters to flee around 3 p.m. Sunday.

"The winds were coming from the southeast, blowing to the west, away from Yarnell and populated areas. Then the wind started to blow in. The wind kicked up to 40 to 50 mph gusts and it blew east, south, west – every which way," Scamardo said. "What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back, and trapped them."

During a deeply emotional memorial Monday evening in Prescott, firefighters walked down the bleachers in a silent gymnasium full of mourners, their heavy work boots drumming a march on the wooden steps.

They bowed their heads for moments of silence at the front of an auditorium that was so packed organizers had to send people outside for fear of violating the fire code. The burly men then hugged each other and cried at the end of the service.

More than 1,000 people gathered in the gym on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus as others throughout the state and beyond also mourned the deaths of the 19 Prescott-based firefighters killed Sunday outside nearby Yarnell. The day marked the nation's deadliest for fire crews since Sept. 11, 2001.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice at the memorial as he described throwing a picnic a month ago for the department's new recruits and meeting their families.

"About five hours ago, I met those same families at an auditorium," he said. "Those families lost. The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost, the state of Arizona and the nation lost," he said before receiving a standing ovation as he left the lectern.

Authorities are investigating to figure out what exactly went wrong after the wind suddenly changed direction. Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, will be the lead in the probe and will aim to put out a report in the coming days with preliminary information, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.

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