YARNELL, Ariz. — Nineteen elite firefighters who died battling a fast-moving wildfire here Sunday in the country’s worst wildfire disaster in 80 years have been hailed by President Obama as “heroes.”
In a statement released early Monday as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said, “Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters.”
Gusting winds and dry grass fed the blaze as it tore through the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. An estimated 200 homes and many businesses have been destroyed.
Early Monday, local media reported the fire was zero percent contained.
Nineteen elite firefighters died battling a fast-moving wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, in the country’s worst wildfire disaster in at least 30 years.
“It’s a dark day,” said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.
Reichling said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of them were found inside their shelters, which are tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat. They are typically used as a last resort.
“The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this incident,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said in a news conference. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
Reichling said the number of firefighters on the scene will reach 400.
It is the worst wildland firefighting tragedy in U.S. history since 25 were killed in the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles in 1933, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. It is also the worst firefighting tragedy ever in Arizona, eclipsing the 1990 Dude Fire near Payson, which claimed six firefighters.
Fraijo said one member of the local hotshot crew survived because the firefighter was not with the other members when they were caught in the blaze, which was caused by lightning.
Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoon-like weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. He added that the winds changed direction on the hotshot crew. There had not been a fire in the Yarnell area in 40 years.
“They were caught up in a very bad situation,” he said.
Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.
“They died heroes,” she said, crying and wiping tears away from her eyes. “And we’ll miss them. We love them.”
The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office was notifying the families of the deceased.
Gov. Jan Brewer said late Sunday that she plans to tour the area Monday and could call the Legislature into a special session to provide emergency funding for the victims.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters,” Brewer said in a statement. “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. The risk is well-known to the brave men and women who don their gear and do battle against forest and flame.
“When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all.”
In his statement, Obama said: “The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need.”
Fraijo said it is still unclear what caused the incident and he did not wish to speculate without more information.
“My heart weeps for those who lost their lives and were affected by today’s Yarnell Hill Fire,” said U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.
The lost firefighters were members of a “hotshot” crew, who specialize in attacking wildfires like the Yarnell Hill Fire. The elite firefighters 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.
Fraijo called these hotshot crews, “the core of firefighting. They’re right there in the middle of the incident,” he said.
Officials at the scene of the blaze said they expect about half of the town’s 500 homes to be destroyed by the fire. It has burned more than 6,000 acres, CNN reported.