YARNELL, Ariz. (FOX10) – 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.
Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots 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 said. But the shelters didn’t save them.
Flames from the fire lit up the night sky in the forest above the town, and smoke from the blaze could be detected for miles. The Associated Press tweeted late Sunday night that the wildfire had destroyed an estimated 200 homes, but that could not be independently confirmed.
A Department of Public Saftey spokesman said one of their helicopter pilots discovered the bodies of the 19 dead firefighters. Officers are working on a way to remove their remains.
The average age of the men in the hotshot crew was 22, according to the DPS spokesman.
The fire started after a lightning strike on 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 Model Creek, Double A Bar Ranch and the Buckhorn subdivision, 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.
Wendy Carter was one of those evacuated.
“You could see it coming closer and closer and every time the wind would shift, it would start up another Part of it burning,” said Carter. “I was scared, I was scared for animals and grandkids. I just knew we had to get out of there.”
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that the 19 firefighters were a part of the city’s fire department.
“We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,” he said at a news conference Sunday evening. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
Hot shot crews are elite firefighters who often hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
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.
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.