A somber caravan carried bodies of the 19 firefighers killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire to Phoenix on Monday, where the Maricopa County Medical Examiner was prepared to receive the fallen men.
The caravan headed south on Arizona 89 at the same time as a press conference in Prescott that featured Gov. Jan Brewer, Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall and Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. Brewer declared a state emergency, freeing $200,000 of state funds for the firefighting effort.
The vans arrived in downtown Phoenix shortly before 12:30 p.m. The medical examiner will conduct autopsies on all 19 firefighters, said county spokeswoman Cari Gerchick. Yavapai authorities asked for help because the rural county didn’t have the resources to handle so many casualties. “It is the largest mass-casualty event in memory,” Gerchick said.
Eighteen of the 19 belonged to the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew headquartered in Prescott.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based in the small town of Prescott, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time, authorities said.
The deaths plunged the town into mourning, and Arizona’s governor called it “as dark a day I can remember” and ordered flags flown at half-staff.
“We are heartbroken about what happened,” President Barack Obama said while on a visit to Africa. He predicted the tragedy will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly wildfires.
The windblown, lightning-sparked fire – which had exploded to about 13 square miles by Monday morning – also destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department said.
“We’re an organization and city that’s in grief,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said at a news briefing Sunday night.
“Every precaution is always taken,” Fraijo said. “The trouble is sometimes it’s such an erratic situation. When you have that much fuel, in those dry conditions, it becomes very unpredictable.”
At least eight firefighters suffered injuries and were taken to Wickenburg Community Hospital, said hospital spokeswoman Roxie Glovers. The extent of their injuries was not known.
The Yarnell Hill Fire burned at least 250 structures, command center officials said Sunday night.
Picture of Granite Mountain Hotshot crew from City of Prescott Website.
Authorities confirmed the hotshots deployed their individual fire shelters, but declined to elaborate on the details leading up to the tragedy.
Fire shelters must be held down manually in order to operate properly and are designed to withstand intense heat, said Carrie Dennett, state forestry division fire prevention and information officer. Hotshot crews are typically deployed with the shelters as well as other tools.
An investigation into the cause of their deaths is currently under way, State Forestry Division Spokesman Mike Reichling said. Names of the deceased have not been released pending notification of next of kin.
“There will be a full investigation. We won’t put out any information until we get full confirmation from the investigation team. It could be days or weeks,” Reichling said.
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