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19 firefighters die battling Ariz. wildfire

10:56 AM, Jul 1, 2013   |    comments
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YARNELL, Ariz. -- A horrible tragedy continues about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, in a small town in Yavapai County.

Nineteen firefighters have been killed battling a fast-moving wildfire in Yavapai County. An Arizona Forestry spokesman says the firefighters were caught by the fire Sunday afternoon near the central Arizona town of Yarnell.

Evacuations have been ordered in the area. Later Monday morning, Arizona's 12News reported that 8,374 acres had been readched by the flames. At that time, no containment on the fire had been made.

With the rapid spread, the town feared that some 500 homes had been destroyed.

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"We are devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you will ever meet," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said Sunday night. "We're going through a terrible crisis right now."

It is the worst firefighting tragedy ever in Arizona, eclipsing the 1990 Dude Fire near Payson, which claimed six firefighters. It was the worst wildland firefighting tragedy in U.S. history since 25 were killed in the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles in 1933.

Fraijo said one member of the local hotshot crew had survived because the firefighter was not with the other members when they were caught in the blaze, which was caused by lightning.

Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of the firefighters were inside their shelters, which are typically used as a last resort to withstand the fire if it overtakes them. Some of the crew members were found outside the shelters.

Officials said 18 of the dead were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team. It's unknown which fire crew the 19th firefighter belonged to. The firefighters are part of a team that is typically sent in first to help cut off the fire, Reichling said.

Fraijo late Sunday declined to provide details of how the firefighters died, and he added that additional information would be released at 10 a.m. Monday.

Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.

"They died heroes," she said, crying and wiping tears away from her eyes. "And we'll miss them. We love them."

The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office was notifying the families of the deceased.

Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement that "it will forever ring as one of our state's darkest, most devastating days."

"It will forever remind us of the constant peril our firefighters selflessly face protecting us. We can never repay these nineteen men and their families for their service and the ultimate sacrifice they made on our behalf. We can, however, offer them our deepest, eternal debt of gratitude."

The governor ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff on Wednesday.

Brewer said late Sunday that she plans to tour the area Monday and could call the Legislature into a special session to provide emergency funding for the victims.

President Obama also spoke about the strategy.

"They were heroes," he said of the dead, "highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet."

He said the federal government is assisting and will remain in close contact with local officials to provide support.

When asked if he could provide any update on the number of homes lost in Yarnell, Fraijo said his attention had been on more pressing matters all afternoon.

"Once we started getting notification of what happened, I lost all track of Yarnell," he said.

At least 250 firefighters were battling the fire late Sunday, and the force was expected to increase to 400 Monday, said Reichling, the Forestry Division spokesman.

The wind-whipped blaze also prompted officials to shut 25 miles of Arizona 89 between Congress and Kirkland, but residents of the hundreds of evacuated homes could still travel the estimated 30 miles to a shelter in Prescott, Reichling said.

Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoon-like weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. He added that the winds changed direction on the hotshot crew. There had not been a fire in the Yarnell area in 40 years.

"They were caught up in a very bad situation," he said.

The Wickenburg Community Hospital treated residents with minor injuries and smoke inhalation, said Roxie Glover, director of community relations at the hospital.

Glover said the emergency room started filling up about 6:30 p.m., and "it's been pretty steady ever since."

Those with more serious injuries were transported to other medical centers.

"It's a terrible tragedy," Glover said, noting the hospital had fielded phone calls from families wondering if their family member was among the firefighters lost.

The Red Cross operated two shelters overnight to house evacuees, said Brian Gomez, spokesman for Red Cross Grand Canyon Chapter. About 25 people stayed in the 100-bed shelter at Yavapai College in Prescott, and nine sheltered at Wickenburg High School, where 475 beds are available.

One of evacuees in Prescott, Jim Kellmann, 65, fled his Peeples Valley home with his wife, five cats and two dogs.

"When I left there was no fire but thick, black smoke," said Kellmann.

Kellmann said he and his wife were able to grab a few precious belongings, but that if his house is gone, so are many of their possessions.

AZ Central contributed to this report.

(Associated Press)

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