Fire crews take time to honor The 19

2013-07-04T00:00:00Z Fire crews take time to honor The 19The Associated Press The Associated Press
July 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

YARNELL - Hundreds of firefighters battling a blaze outside the mountain town of Yarnell came off the line Wednesday to salute a procession of fire vehicles that had been left by 19 elite hotshot crew members killed in the line of duty.

The firefighters and law enforcement officers gathered along a highway to honor the Prescott-based unit deployed last weekend. The vehicles were driven by fellow Prescott firefighters. One of the trucks held backpacks, water jugs and coolers.

Another was emblazoned with the group's motto, in Latin: "To be, rather than to seem."

Fire crews across the U.S. also paused throughout the day to remember the Granite Mountain Hotshots and recognize the dangers firefighters face, said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the multiagency Southwest Incident Command Team.

"One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is, we don't forget," he said, adding that crews pay tribute every year to those who have died in the nation's worst firefighting disasters.

"And we will remember this one," he said, his voice shaking. "It's tough."

In the biggest loss of U.S. firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts on Sunday turned what was believed to be a manageable, lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team of hotshots, most of them in the prime of their lives.

Fire investigators seeking to determine what went wrong were expected Wednesday to make their way to the site where the bodies were found to get their first look at the scene, a mountainous spot about a quarter-mile southwest of Yarnell, said Mike Dudley of the U.S. Forest Service, who is on the team looking into the deaths.

Their investigation will include examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports. They'll also surely talk to the sole survivor of the blaze, the lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions and heading straight for them.

At one point, the blaze raced four miles in just 20 minutes, fed by the dry brush and 41-mph winds, said Yavapai County Sheriff's Capt. Jeff Newnum.

Nearly 600 firefighters were battling the blaze Wednesday, which has burned about 13 square miles. Hundreds were evacuated and crews erected perimeters around homes.

The fire remained 8 percent contained, but fire officials expected that to grow by the day's end. The hope is to allow residents back into their homes over the weekend and contain the fire by July 12.

The blaze has damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes and other buildings, according to the Sheriff's Office. Officials earlier had provided different estimates ranging from 50 to 250 homes and other buildings lost in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. The number has fluctuated because of limited access to the community.

Reporters on Wednesday were allowed into a section of the fire area, where charred pine trees resembled burned toothpicks sticking out of the hillsides.

The ground was covered in a blackened patchwork, and the higher mountains behind the hills were speckled with pink retardant. The yards and driveways of a few isolated homes were marked by the spots of controlled fires set by firefighters to beat back the blaze.

The area was dusty and smoky, but there were no visible flames.

Fire officials did not take journalists near where the bodies of the 19 firefighters were found.

Only one member of the crew, identified Tuesday as lookout Brendan McDonough, 21, survived. After radioing others about the growing danger, McDonough made it to safety while the rest were overtaken by the blaze.

"He did exactly what he was supposed to," said Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward, who implored the media to respect McDonough's privacy as he and the families mourn.

"He's trying to deal with the same things that we're all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that's compounded being there on the scene," Ward said.

McDonough was among more than 3,000 people at a public memorial service Tuesday evening in Prescott. He sat in a special section with victims' families and was not accessible to reporters. Security escorted the group out when the event ended.

The team of investigators, comprising forest managers and safety experts, was expected to release a preliminary report in days.

"We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible," Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said.

Safety standards for wildland firefighters were toughened nearly 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on Colorado's Storm King Mountain and investigators found a number of errors in the way the blaze was fought.

In what fire authorities said was a situation eerily similar to the Arizona blaze, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging on Storm King in Colorado, creating 100-foot flames. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.

Under the toughened policies, no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather and post lookouts.

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 tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.

"One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is, we don't forget."

Jim Whittington

spokesman for the multiagency Southwest Incident Command Team

The surviving lookout "did exactly what he was supposed to."

Wade Ward

Prescott Fire Department spokesman

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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