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.”