YARNELL, Ariz. (TheBlaze/AP) — Gusty, hot winds blew an Arizona blaze out of control Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing 19 members of an elite fire crew in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.
KPNX-TV reported the crew was known as the Granite Mountain “hotshot” firefighters. The members were forced to deploy their fire shelters – tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat – when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told The Associated Press.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, his voice breaking at times, said that the 19 firefighters were a part of the city’s fire department. One member of the crew was working in a different location and survived, Fraijo told KPNX-TV. 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 added that 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, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it,” Fraijo said.
“Under certain conditions there’s usually only sometimes a 50 percent chance that they survive,” he said. “It’s an extreme measure that’s taken under the absolute worst conditions.”
Prescott, which is more than 30 miles northeast of Yarnell, is one of the only cities in the United States that has a hot shot fire crew, Fraijo said. The unit was established in 2002, and the city also has 75 suppression team members.
The flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town, and smoke from the blaze could be smelled for miles.
The fire started Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. Officials ordered the evacuations of 50 homes in several communities, and later Sunday afternoon, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office expanded the order to include more residents in Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Previously Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, told the Arizona Republic that 20 firefighters were involved in a “serious incident.”
The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., which killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.
U.S. wildfire disasters date back more than two centuries and include tragedies like the 1949 Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont., that killed 13, or the Rattlesnake blaze four years later that claimed 15 firefighters in Southern California.
“A terrible, terrible dark day in Arizona,” Gov. Jan Brewer told KPNX-TV. She added in a statement: “This is as dark a day as I can remember. It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: fighting fires is dangerous work.”
Morrison said several homes in the community of Glenisle burned on Sunday. He said no other injuries or deaths have been reported from that area.
About 200 firefighters are fighting the wildfire, which has also forced the closure of parts of state Route 89.
Reichling also told The Arizona Republic the fire they’re calling in federal help to fight the fire.
Roxie Glover, spokeswoman at Wickenburg Community Hospital, told The Associated Press that the hospital has been told to expect residents with injuries and firefighters.
In the afternoon, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office expanded the evacuations to include residents in the Peeples Valley area and in the town of Yarnell.
The wildfire also forced the closure of parts of state Route 89, the Arizona Department of Transportation announced. The department did not have an estimate of how long the closure would last but advised drivers to use U.S. 93 or Interstate 17 as alternate routes.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at Yavapai College in Prescott, the sheriff’s office said.
The Yarnell Hill Fire now covers nearly 2,000 acres, according to the newspaper.
The fire started Friday but picked up momentum Sunday as the area experienced high temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions.
An additional 130 firefighters and more water- and retardant-dropping helicopters and aircraft are on their way.
In another Arizona fire, a 2-acre blaze that started at a motorcycle salvage yard and spread to a trailer park has destroyed five mobile homes in the Gila County community of Rye, located more than 130 miles east of Yarnell.
Gila County Health and Emergency Services Director Michael O’Driscoll said no one was injured in Rye.
The fire was ignited Saturday night at All Bikes Sales located off Highway 87. It spread to neighboring federal Forest Service land but was fully contained within 12 hours of its start.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
Seven adults and two children were staying at a shelter set up for people who were evacuated, the Red Cross said.
Here’s footage of the fire from USA Today:
This is a breaking news story. Updates will be added.