Eighteen members of an elite firefighting crew called the Hotshots, and one other person were killed over the weekend in an Arizona wildfire. They were working to protect themselves by deploying tent-like structures before they were overtaken, a state forestry spokesman says. The men were killed Sunday fighting the Yarnell Hill fire, 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. The fire was started by a lightning-spark, and spread to more than 8,000 acres.
President Barack Obama lauded the efforts of the fallen firefighters, saying their deaths are heartbreaking and “our thoughts and prayers go out” to their families. His administration stands ready to help in any way necessary, he said.
“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,” he said in an earlier statement.
The fire has destroyed at least 50 structures and threatened 500 people in Yarnell, Yavapai County Emergency Management said Monday. Most people had evacuated from the town, and no injuries or other deaths were reported.
The fire killed 18 members of the 20-member of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, known for battling the region’s worst fires, including two earlier this season. The average age of the men in the crew was 22-years-old, Fox 10 reports The other person killed has not yet been identified.
The loss has led to the creation of a Facebook page honoring those killed. As of this morning, over 200,000 people have liked the page, with many people, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the Gary Sinise Foundation writing in with condolences.
A helicopter pilot discovered the bodies and authorities are working to remove them, a Department of Public Safety spokesperson said, according to Fox 10.
The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire of Los Angeles, which killed 29. The most firefighters — 340 — were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, according to the website.
Incident Commander Mike Reichling tells ABC 15 what helped make the Yarnell fire so dangerous:
“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. That’s what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels.”
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said the firefighters, whose names have not been released, were part of the city’s fire department.
“We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said at a news conference Sunday evening. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”We’re devastated,” Fraijo said late Sunday.