YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) — A wildfire that killed nearly 20 members of an elite fire crew trying to help protect homes in a small central Arizona town has quadrupled in size, to 13 square miles.
Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said Monday that 18 "hotshot" fire crews are now battling the blaze, approximately 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Sunday, the lightning-sparked fire killed 18 members of a 20-member hotshot crew based in nearby Prescott. Reichling said one other person also was killed but has not been identified.
The fire Sunday spread to at least 2,000 acres amid triple-digit temperatures, destroying 200 homes and sending hundreds fleeing from the community of Yarnell.
Reichling said the blaze is now at 8,374 acres, with zero containment.
Also Monday, the lone survivor of the elite firefighting crew that was trapped and killed by the wildfire escaped because he was moving the crew's truck when the flames roared over the men.
Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
Gusty, hot winds had blown the Arizona blaze out of control Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing the 18 members of the elite fire crew in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the United States in 80 years.
The 18 were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a specialist team of wildfire fighters based in Prescott, said Mike Reichling, a spokesman for the Tempe Fire Department. He declined to identify the men until their families had been notified.
The firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters — tent-like structures meant to shield them from flames and heat — when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison said.
In a Facebook post, the U.S. Wildland Fire Aviation Service asked “for prayers for the families and friends of these brave men and women.”
Flames lit up the night sky in the forest above Yarnell, and smoke from the blaze could be smelled for miles.
“It started on Friday with a lightning strike, and it's grown” amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions, Reichling said. The fire is “well over 2,000 acres,” he said, and had “brought down half of the town of Yarnell. It has decimated that town.”
Officials ordered the evacuations of at least 50 homes in several communities, and the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office expanded the order later Sunday to include more residents in Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that the 19 firefighters were part of that city's fire department. The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona.
“By the time they got there, it was moving very quickly,” he said.
He said the firefighters had to deploy the emergency shelters when “something drastic” occurred.
“One of the last fail-safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective — kinda looks like a foil-type — fire-resistant material, with the desire, the hope at least, that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it,” Fraijo said.
“Under certain conditions there's ... a 50 percent chance that they survive,” he said. “It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions.”
According to government figures, the fire Sunday represents the largest number of firefighters killed in one wildfire since a 1933, when a blaze in Los Angeles' Griffith Park killed 25, and the largest loss of firefighters since 341 died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Until Sunday, Arizona had 21 wildfire fatalities since 1955, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Morrison, the state forestry spokesman, also said several homes in the community of Glenisle burned Sunday. He said no other injuries or deaths have been reported from that area.
About 200 firefighters are fighting the wildfire, which has forced the closure of parts of state Route 89. An additional 130 firefighters and more water- and retardant-dropping helicopters and aircraft were on their way.
Federal help also was being called in to fight the fire, Reichling said.
When asked how under control the fire was, Reichling replied: “Not very. Right now we have zero containment.”
Steve Skurja, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, said officials had decided to allow many homes in the area to burn because the crews were having such a hard time. The Arizona Republic reported that about half of Yarnell's 500 homes were expected to be destroyed.
Prescott, which is more than 30 miles northeast of Yarnell, is one of the only cities in the United States that has a hotshot fire crew, Fraijo said. The unit was established in 2002, and the city also has 75 suppression team members.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at Yavapai College in Prescott, the sheriff's office said.
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, whose district includes Yarnell, shot off a series of tweets Sunday night sending his condolences to those affected. He said his office will remain in contact with emergency responders and would offer help to those who needed it.
Other high profile Arizonans expressed their shock on Twitter, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who called the firefighters' deaths “absolutely devastating news.” U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted that he was “sick with the news.”
This report includes material from the New York Times.
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