Arizona Blaze That Killed 19 Firefighters Rages On

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PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- As a deadly, wind-driven wildfire continued to rage out of control in central Arizona on Monday, crews recovered the last of the 19 bodies of the members of an elite firefighting crew, who died after being overtaken by flames while battling the blaze, officials said.

The bodies were taken in a procession to the medical examiner's office in Phoenix, Fire Chief Dan Fraijo of Prescott said. Their names have not yet been released.

The blaze they were working to extinguish, the Yarnell Hill Fire, near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, has grown to some 8,374 acres and has destroyed more than 200 buildings, the authorities said Monday.

Fire officials said they expected a difficult day with sudden, heavy rains and unpredictable shifting winds, similar to those that led to the deaths of the firefighters on Sunday.

As of Monday morning, with temperatures in the area already topping 90 degrees, 400 firefighters aided by helicopters, planes dropping fire retardant and a DC-10 jet dropping slurry, were battling the blaze, which was "zero percent contained," said Mike Reichling, a spokesman for the Tempe Fire Department. "The weather," he said, "has caused havoc."

Grief counselors have also been dispatched to meet with firefighters who might want to talk, officials said.

The authorities said the winds, combined with a 10-year drought and dry, thick brush, was providing plentiful fuel for the blaze, which was shooting flames and billowing smoke high into the sky. There had not been a wildfire in the area for about 40 years, officials said.

The fire was sparked Friday afternoon by a lightning strike, the authorities said.

The firefighters killed in the blaze were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a specialist team of wildfire fighters based in Prescott, Ariz. The names of the firefighters, who worked for the Prescott Fire Department, have not yet been released.

Speaking to reporters on Monday from the gymnasium at Prescott High School, Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, broke down, crying as the looked at the crowd seated in the bleachers, where firefighters were among the audience members.

"I know it's unbearable for you; it's also unbearable for me," she said. "For now, we mourn."

President Obama issued a statement on Monday as he was ending a visit to South Africa and flying to Tanzania. "Yesterday, 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Ariz. They were heroes -- 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.

"Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy."

Officials have declined to discuss how the firefighters were suddenly overtaken by the blaze, but Chief Fraijo told The Associated Press that the firefighters had to deploy their emergency shelters when "something drastic happened."

Chief Fraijo said during a news conference on Monday that an investigation into the episode was under way, and that officials would not discuss the circumstances surrounding the accident, at least for now.

"They were hard-working, well-trained, experienced people," he said. It was still unclear, he added, "whatever situation it was that took place."

The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona. The unit was established in 2002.

Until Sunday, Arizona had suffered 21 firefighter fatalities in wildfires since 1955, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Some residents left to go to neighboring Peeples Valley, where an evacuation order was in place, to help people pack up and leave their homes. Others stayed behind, watching the parched bush burn in the distance or, like Nina Bill Overmyer, 66, taking a nap.

Suddenly, the wind shifted, and the flames changed direction, rushing through the forest straight toward Yarnell. Ms. Overmyer's husband, Chuck, woke her up, and they picked up what they could. He took his motorcycle. She took their Dodge truck, pulling the flatbed trailer bearing their lime-green Model A street rod, one of their most prized possessions. By the time they came back to get their dogs, the blaze was roaring just above them, rolling down the mountain and swallowing everything around: the town's library, community center, diner.

Nearby, Adria Shayne, 52, grabbed her parrot, Jingles; her dog, Spanky; her cat, Gizmo; and nothing else. Her daughter-in-law, Cynthia Somers, said there was no time to think of what to take and what to leave behind -- "It was get up and go." Ms. Shayne, smoking a cigarette outside the Arrowhead Bar & Grill on the edge of Route 89 in Congress, where sheriff's deputies had blocked traffic from going any farther north, choked up as she described her "little nice house," the only one in town with a white picket fence.

"Oh, God," she lamented. "It's all gone."

According to government figures, the fire Sunday represents the largest number of firefighters killed in one wildfire since a 1933 blaze in California that killed 25, and the largest loss of firefighters since 341 and two paramedics died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.

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.

Yarnell is an old gold mining town of about 650 residents, based on the latest figures, though full-time residents numbered about 400. Sean Kriner, 47, said that when the economy went sour a few years ago, many people left. "There are empty homes everywhere to this day," he said, but a strong sense of community remains.

"People helping people," Mr. Kriner said. "That's who we are."

Timothy Williams and Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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