Record Heat And Drought Fuel Chaotic Wildfire In Arizona, Killing 19 Firefighters

The Yarnell, AZ wildfire from the air. (Credit: ABC 15 News)

On Sunday evening, nineteen firefighters were killed when they were fighting a wildfire southwest of Prescott, AZ after winds shifted direction. This is the single deadliest incident for U.S. firefighters since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The 19 firefighters were part of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots, a highly-trained, specialist crew founded in 2002 that had fought wildfires across Arizona and New Mexico in recent months. There were 20 members of the team, which is based in Prescott, AZ. Nineteen fire shelters — essentially tin-foil tents — were found deployed in the area where the firefighters were found. Authorities planned to release more details at 10 a.m. Monday morning.

A lightning strike set the fire in motion on Friday night, and has grown to encompass 2,000 acres as drought conditions and a record-breaking heat wave settled into the region.

It has destroyed half the town of Yarnell, which sits northeast of Phoenix, AZ. The town had been evacuated after a 911 call alerted authorities. Mike Reichling, spokesman for the Tempe Fire Department, said the fire was “not very” under control. “Right now we have zero containment.”

There had not been a wildfire in Yarnell for 40 years.

200 firefighters, including the 19 that were killed, were on the scene of the fire last night. Authorities planned to double that number to close to 400 on Monday.

Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona, said in a statement: “This is as dark a day as I can remember.” She said she planned to tour the area and call a special session of the legislature to provide emergency funding for victims. President Obama said in a statement while in Africa: “Yesterday, 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. 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.”

The tragedy was the worst wildfire accident in the United States since 1933. Arizona has lost 21 firefighters statewide since 1955.

This weekend, the western United States has been grappling with a brutal, record-breaking heat wave which saw Phoenix, AZ hit 119 on Saturday. Much of the region was under heat advisory as the monsoons that often give respite at this time of year failed to do so.

Daytime temperatures in the region not expected to drop below 110 degrees until Friday.

Most of Arizona — and the rest of the Western U.S. — is experiencing at least severe drought. Earlier this month 900 firefighters battled two historic wildfires in New Mexico. Budget cuts due to sequestration at the national level were expected to leave the federal government $115 million short of normal firefighting capacity. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department was trying to shift funds around from fire prevention to fire suppression efforts, said in May, “I hope we can get through this fire season without any fatalities.”

(Credit: Arizona Republic)

38 Responses to Record Heat And Drought Fuel Chaotic Wildfire In Arizona, Killing 19 Firefighters

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    This is really sad. In the future, as fires get bigger and hotter, it might be better to let the fires burn, and evacuate towns. Buildings aren’t worth the lives of our brave young men.

    The Prescott area is marginal conifer habitat. Regrowth may not include the pines and even junipers that were there before. What we are seeing in Arizona and the California Mojave is not “drought”, but rather a new regime, one predicted by climate scientists.

    Here in the California Mojave, rainfall has been less than a third of normal for three years, down to 1.4″ a year.

    The press, as usual, is blowing it, focusing on the human drama and the wild forces of nature. The chance to educate media consumers about the tie to global warming consequences has been deliberately bypassed. This is craven commercialism, and borderline criminal negligence. Nobody is calling them on it. Thanks for Climate Progress.

  2. J Hitsch says:

    Living in Colorado I have great admiration for the work these brave people do. That said I wonder if they had all the equipment they needed? You see I remember that in the summer of 2002 (right after bushes pro fire fighter photo ops) The repubs cut over time benefits for fire fighters fighting the wild fires.

    Support for our nations heroes should not only happen when they die saving the things we hold dear and end when the cameras are off.

    What ever these guys are paid it is not enough. They deserve the big bonuses NOT bankers and hedge fund leaches.

  3. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    I lived just across the hill from the Storm King FIre near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and watched the column of smoke as a blowup occurred and took 14 hotshot lives. These kids (male and female) were from Prineville, OR.

    I’ll never forget hearing my neighbor, who managed the hospital, tell me they were setting up a temporary morgue there. This was before anyone but the authorities knew what had happened. I had a really bad sinking feeling.

    This is the same damn thing, a fire blowup, and the erratic behavior of these fires is a new paradigm as we see record heat and winds working together to create never before seen conditions.

    It was 104 where I live in SE Utah yesterday and predicted to be the same all this coming week. And yesterday my cousin, who drives a nitrogen truck for the oil patch (for fracking) had the audacity to tell me there’s no such thing as climate change.

    What does it take to comvince people?

  4. Zimzone says:

    Having been a volunteer firefighter for many years, few people understand the lethal elements these men & women face on a daily basis.
    The foil tents these hotshots use are for a process called ‘shake & bake’. When faced with being overcome by flames, you take your shovel, dig as deep as you can in the time you have left & then shake the device to open, lay down in the hole & pull it up over you. A fast moving fire will go over you in minutes, but you endure very high heat and smoke during the event.
    My heart goes out to these brave folks for giving their lives to save others.

  5. katy says:

    TP commenter “Raven” (aka nevar?) (from the pre-fb days) is a wildfire fighter…
    fingers crossed…
    this is awful news… and that they were an elite force hits harder, somehow…

  6. katy says:

    … and in central illinois 70-low 80s this week… crazy… the heat is on the way tho…

  7. katy says:

    zim, you would remember Raven, i think?

  8. Zimzone says:

    I certainly do, Katy.
    I hope he wasn’t on that hotshot crew…what a tragedy.

  9. Robert in New Orleans says:

    It is time for some technical advancement in fire fighter protection technology. The current level of protection seems more akin to something you would use prepare your meal on the outdoor grill. Maybe its time for robotic firefighters.

    I do see increases in homeowners insurance coming down the pipeline for rural homeowners. And I also see smaller towns out west shriveling up and dying because of drought and heat. In some cases there will not be enough money in the budget to save every little town from wildfires(aka barbecue triage).

  10. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    I’ve owned two houses in the Colorado mtns and sold both, the second from fears of wildfire (the property next to it burned a few days after I sold mine).

    I see a day in the not too distant future where these desirable mountain properties will become hard to sell. I know I would never buy another. Living with the constant threat of fire made me want a house out in the desert, which is where I now live.

    And with these heat waves, the mountains aren’t really that much cooler. For example, the pretty little mountain town of Sumpter, OR is predicted to see 102 degrees today.

  11. Mainstream media never mentions the correlation with climate change,they just report another disaster! thanks T/P for a quality report

  12. Let the fires burn; they are too big to fight. The town was evacuated so 19 brave and underpaid men died for housing. It makes me angry.

  13. I don’t know if they got a raise recently, but they were paid $14 per hour a few years ago.

  14. Nico says:

    Most places probably can’t even mention ‘climate change’ in a story about the heat and the wildfires for fear of letter writing campaigns from the right and claims of being biased.

  15. Nico says:

    BTW, Yarnell is northWEST of Phoenix.

  16. Joan Savage says:

    The Yarnell Hill fire developed so fast that the national fire map had yet to post the existence of the fire last night when news spread of the nineteen deaths of the fire fighters.

    This morning’s national fire map isn’t much better. The fire is classified as a Wildland Fire – IMT1: Wildland fire; Type 1 Incident Management Team Assigned. Lacking still is information about type of fuel, percent containment, burnt area, team leader. The first team leader may be among the dead.

    I’m not criticizing the slow information flow, as I think it could indicate the extreme fire risk conditions and the strapped fire fighting resources.

  17. Jack Burton says:

    No time to read the comments. But a quick personal opinion. When brush, grasses and trees are burning, WHY put a large group of people into deadly peril to try and put it out? I can see firefighters deployed in built up areas to defend housing, being thee, they also have refuge available. But being in the Bush with uncertain winds, and nothing but brush and trees to protect?
    Lets look more carefully. I know how people who do this forest fire work think, they want to be heroes, I did part time fire work here in summers after getting out of the military. The hero mindset will get you killed. Sad for all the families who must cope with death, and a very horrible death at that.

  18. David Moore says:

    I agree with Mike Roddy, this may be a new, much drier climate regime where remote suburbs cannot be protected. These deaths should cause a rethinking of policy and dense trees may not be sustainable in ultra dry areas.

  19. Joan Savage says:

    “This fire was very radical in its behavior, the fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south, it turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon,” Reichling said. “That’s what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels.”

    Read more:

  20. Joan Savage says:

    A high amplitude jet stream pattern twisted the prevailing winds around in Arizona, shifting them from south to north.

    Connect this back to the unfortunately timely CP articles about Arctic warming, shifted jet stream patterns, and altered weather conditions.

  21. JimD says:

    I live in Prescott, AZ and thought I would give another view of this tragedy.

    The other day on another blog we were talking about the incredible temperatures out here in AZ and the southwest with some temps exceeding 120F yesterday and the day before. I also mentioned that at my house in Prescott, AZ we were at 38% of normal yearly rain and that we had not had a year of average or above rain since 1998. Two weeks ago we had a wildfire on the north side of Prescott that burned about 7000 acres and very nearly burned large numbers of homes. In that fire a Prescott based elite fire crew (that same Granite Mountain Hotshots mentioned above) helped make a stand to protect the homes where the fire burned in so close that some of the houses were smoking and the yards burned. They truly put their lives on the line for us.

    Yesterday afternoon we were overjoyed at our house when we got a hard thunderstorm and the first rain in about 100 days. Be careful what you wish for. Unfortunately the giant downdrafts from this huge storm were very hard and at that time the same fire crew mentioned above was making a similar stand to protect the little town of Yarnell just south of us from another wildfire started by lightning the day before. They were not being reckless or foolish. They were trying to save peoples homes and lives. They were not on the fire front. When the downdraft from the big thunderstorm cell hit the fire line it instantly turned the fire around and moved it at speed right over the fire team and into the town. 19 Prescott firemen died and 200+ homes burned in minutes.

    “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

    When we read about these droughts and the effects they will have on wildfires in the west over the next few decades this is what we will be seeing more often. One of my sisters lives in Colorado Springs and last year a fire that burned 350 homes stopped just a 1/2 mile from her house and then a couple of weeks ago on the other side of Colo Springs a wildfire burned 500 homes. It is only a matter of time before there is one of these fires that kills large numbers of people and destroys thousands of homes.

  22. AZLobo says:

    The stalled high over the Western US that is bringing staggering heat is no doubt assisted by the change in polar/equatorial energy balance. However it is important to note the cell that created the outflow winds was following a standard local high to low monsoon pattern. I live in Prescott and that storm moved across our area an hour prior to the tragedy in Yarnell. I know you mean well but we always must be careful with attribution, it just gives the deniers room to maneuver.

  23. Joan Savage says:

    Excellent clarification! Thanks very much for the insight about local wind shift.

  24. Myron Mesecke says:

    Knowing that the circumpolar vortex changed last year from zonal flow to meridional flow it is easy to understand why some areas, western US is having hotter than normal temperatures while the eastern US is having cooler than normal temperatures. The jet stream dips up and down more dramatically. Allowing cooler air from the arctic is move further south (eastern US) while warmer air from the equator move further north (western US).

    While tragic there is nothing abnormal about the heat wave.

    And according to the National Interagency Fire Center, 2013 still (year to date) ranks near the bottom of the ten year average in both the number of fires and the number of acres burned.

    So 2013 is not abnormal in regards to wildfires either.

  25. David Goldstein says:

    Hey AZLobo- you bring up a very challenging topic area- that of attribution to specific events due to climate change- whether it be Hurricane Sandy or the latest and tragic wildfire. Here’s a thought: As you pointed out, this fire was influenced by a weather pattern ‘standard’ to your area; fair enough. In that sense, the resulting fire and tragic losses may have happened regardless. AND, at the same time, we know that the conditions particular to fire are being exacerbated by climate change: 1) Heat 2) Drought 3) (probably) the unusual and ‘blocking’ jet stream patterns due to Arctic Amplification. We also know that forest fires are due to double in size and incidence over the next few decades due to climate change over the next few decades (see here for reference: ) So…..while specific attribution is not possible, we can say that the probability of such fires is, and will continue to, increase. Tricky all around I think!

  26. Vic says:

    “I think we’re going to have to ask ourselves a set of broader questions about how we’re handling increasingly deadly and difficult firefights. Wildfires have been continually escalating at higher and higher cost, and putting more and more pressure not only the federal fire services, but also on state and local fire services, and we’re going to have to think about what more we can do on that front. But for now, I think what we’re most concerned about is how painful these losses are.” – Barack Obama

  27. AZLobo says:

    David, I agree with everything you said. Wholeheartedly by the way. I probably read Skeptical Science, Real Climate, and the Arctic Sea Ice blog more than anything else. My point was just specific to the wind direction being affected by our wandering and anemic jet-stream. Our only hope of mitigating the accelerating consequence of climate change, if one remains, is to stay with good science.

  28. Mike, it did not even get a mention on local news this AM, completely focused as they were on the BART strike. Good timing… go on strike in the middle of a heat emergency.

  29. California has a state agency called CalFire that operates in rural areas not covered any other way. There is a $150 / yr fire prevention fee now charged for all parcel owners. That is a little over $112 M and not nearly enough. The Calfire station in my community was staffed a month early this year doe to the climate drought.

  30. Vine says:

    Prayers to the people of the United States and Arizona families who have suffered such loss. In Australia we have large bushfires and come in full knowing what you are going through cannot be easy. May climate change action be a direct consequence of the beautiful lives and property lost.

  31. Solar Jim says:

    These are no longer forest fires of old. They are carbonic acid-energized conflagrations that are part of a human made extinction event. (CO2 is carbonic acid gas)

    May this tragedy give us greater moral strength to oppose the human forces fueling climate meltdown.

  32. catman306 says:

    Here’s video about the safety tents these heroes used. What to do and what not to do.
    Information anyone in fire country can use.

    The New Generation Fire Shelter

  33. prokaryotes says:

    You might want to add this to the article, from CBS

    U.S. wildfires increasing because of Climate Change – Arizona Chief Firefighter

  34. John H. Cato, jr. says:

    re: $14/hour pay:
    Maybe the wildland firefighters need to go on strike (like BART) until they are provided a $10 million life insurance policy – with the provision that $1 million (in cash) is released to the next of kin within 24 *hours* of their death. That’s still poor pay – but maybe it would show their families that, at least, SOMEone still has perspective.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They get paid as much per hour as a Wall Street kleptocrat gets per second. What an amazingly malignant system!

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I have always been convinced that nothing whatsoever will convince the Rightwing hardcore. A mixture of insuperable stupidity (the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon in particular)indefatigable ignorance, ideological fanaticism and total indifference to the suffering of others explains most of it. A small percentage might wake up if they or their loved ones are affected, but even then most will be steered by their MSM Thought Controllers to blaming the ‘Green extremists’ for it all. Naturally, it doesn’t have to make any sense at all.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    At $14 an hour, soft machines will be cheaper than robots for a long time yet. Workplace safety laws and workers’ compensation are under heavy attack here in Australia. The Bosses don’t really cherish their serfs, no matter how much PR to the contrary is spread.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As I often assert, nothing will ever make the denialists recognise reality.