July 4, 2013

Containment of deadly Arizona fire will increase quickly, officials say

While crews connect already contained areas, Prescott's Independence Day celebration will go on as planned.

By FELICIA FONSECA and TAMI ABDOLLAH/The Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Fire managers expected containment of the Arizona wildfire that killed 19 Hotshots to increase quickly.

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A young boy holds his hat as he and others stand for the national anthem before the start of the Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo, Wednesday in Prescott, Ariz. A mile-high city about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, Prescott remains a modern-day outpost of the pioneer spirit. It's that spirit that will guide officials as they navigate the days ahead and figure out how to honor the elite Hotshot firefighters who died in a nearby wind-driven wildfire that is still burning. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

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The Yarnell fire north of Phoenix is burning on about 13 square miles and is 45 percent contained.

Spokeswoman Karen Takai says that will begin to jump because crews are starting to connect the areas that already are contained on the northeast and southeast sections of the fire.

About 680 firefighters are on the scene.

Yarnell residents who were evacuated might be able to return home by this weekend.

Takai says winds are light, but gusts and thunderstorms are a threat, and it's still very dry.

Prescott officials are working to retool the over-the-top celebration that has made this Old West town the place to be on Independence Day in the wake of the deaths over the weekend of 19 hometown firefighters.

One thing is for certain: There will be fireworks.

The booming red and white bursts may remind some of the wildfire, still burning, that claimed all but one of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew on Sunday, but the hilltop community of 40,000 is determined to mourn its dead without compromising its traditions or shying away from overt celebration. The mantra for days has been, "celebration, not grief."

Though much of the southwest remains a tinderbox, fire officials say they will be able to deploy the pyrotechnics safely, pouring water on the detonation area if necessary.

Festivities are expected to last at least 10 hours and include an all-day carnival, live music and a nighttime dance at the town's outdoor rodeo.

Hotels have long since run out of room for out-of-towners hoping to attend the celebration at Pioneer Park, a 10-minute drive from the makeshift memorial residents have built outside the Hotshot headquarters.

Violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a manageable lightning-strike forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the highly qualified Hotshots, most of whom were in the prime of their lives.

Charred pine trees resembling burnt toothpicks now poke from the hillsides in the fire's wake. The higher mountains behind the hills are speckled by pink retardant.

Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and dry conditions that caused the fire to explode.

A team of forest managers and safety experts is charged with finding out what went wrong. In addition to examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports, they'll also talk to the crew's sole survivor, a 21-year-old lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions.

Nearly 600 firefighters continue to fight the blaze, which has burned about 13 square miles. Hundreds remain evacuated and at least 129 homes have been destroyed, according to a tally released Wednesday by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office.

Many of the evacuees are staying with friends and relatives in Prescott, where they have been frequenting public meetings and memorial services in town.

The fire was 45 percent contained Wednesday night, up from 8 percent earlier in the day, and authorities said the figure could change on the Fourth of July as they compile a more complete picture with sophisticated mapping techniques.

Evacuees, families of the fallen men, and firefighters from across the state are expected to attend the town's holiday celebrations.

As night fell Wednesday, mayor Marlin Kuykendall was still working with staff to determine who would speak in memory of the fallen firefighters before the fireworks display.

___

Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Bob Christie in Phoenix, Brian Skoloff in Yarnell, Hannah Dreier in Prescott, and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.

 

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