YARNELL — The 19 firefighters killed Sunday in Arizona were part of an elite crew known for working on the front lines of region’s worst fires, including two this season that came before the team descended on the erratic fire that claimed their lives.
All but one member of the Prescott-based Hotshot crew died in what was the deadliest wildfire for firefighters in the U.S. in decades.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said the 19, whose names had not been released, were a part of the city’s fire department.
Before the fire near Yarnell, the group — one of 13 Arizona Hotshot crews — had been profiled in local media last year as they prepared for the fire season and this year as they took on a blaze near Prescott earlier this month.
“The Hot Shots may be fighting the fire with fire,” Prescott firefighter and spokesman Wade Ward told the Prescott Daily Courier in an interview last week (http://bit.ly/10tLAsZ). “They may be removing the fuels from the fire, or building a containment line that might be a trigger point for farther down the line.”
He told the newspaper members of Hotshot crews are highly trained and work long hours in extreme conditions as they carry out the most demanding of tasks. When the deadly blaze near Yarnell erupted Friday, it came amid a severe heat wave that gripped much of the West. It grew out of control as it was fanned by gusty, hot winds Sunday.
“By the time they got there, it was moving very quickly,” Fraijo told The Associated Press of Sunday’s fire.
Hotshot crews — there are more than 100 in the U.S. — 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 Prescott-based crew last year had four rookies on its 22-member squad, according to a Cronkite News Service report that profiled the group (http://bit.ly/Id3Ca8).
State forestry spokesman Art Morrison told the AP that the firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency fire shelters — tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat — when they were caught in the fire.
The Cronkite News Service had featured the group in its story practicing such deployment in a worst-case scenario drill.
“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 Sunday.
“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.”