PRESCOTT, Arizona — As the bodies of 19 U.S. firefighters were driven to a morgue for autopsies Monday, grief-stricken family members and residents here mourned the victims of Arizona’s deadliest firefighting disaster, and officials struggled to control a wildfire that one official said is zero percent contained.
City officials said the men, all members of an elite local wildfire fighting unit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were preparing to protect a group of homes from flames when the fire exploded in the nearby town of Yarnell, trapping them. They provided no information about the names of the victims or exactly how they died.
Prescott Mayor Marlin Kuykendall described his city of about 40,000 as consumed with grief, and Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said 20 percent of his firefighters are gone, a loss that touched nearly every resident. Grief counselors were dispatched to console, counsel and pray with any relative who requested it.
With her voice cracking at times during a news conference, Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer called the fire “the deadliest in Arizona state history,” and the nation’s worst since 29 firefighters were killed in the Griffith Park wildfire in Los Angeles in 1933. “I said last night that my heart is breaking,” the governor said, “I can’t imagine how the families who knew these individuals feel.”
In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama called the men heroes. “They were … 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 president said.
As officials spoke in Prescott, the fire that took the lives of Prescott’s finest firefighters continued to burn more than 8,000 acres, mostly out of control. Residents and fire officials said it was driven by fierce winds gusting up to 25 m.p.h. and moved erratically, destroying at least 200 buildings so far.
John Marsh confirmed that one of the victims was his son, Eric, 43, a nature lover, hunter and fisherman who organized the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew eight years ago and served as superintendent.
Marsh said he moved to Arizona five years ago to be closer to his only child. On Sunday he heard on television that a crew was missing, and when it was named, he knew his son was gone.
“It wasn’t a good way to hear it,” Marsh said. Officials have since confirmed his fears. Eric left a wife, Amanda.
Fraijo said he did not know what contributed to the factors that trapped the firefighters, who were discovered with their emergency tents, that helped fend off smoke and fire, deployed. Some of the dead were in the tents and some were out. A 20th member of the unit escaped because he was driving with supplies.
This year’s Arizona fire season is “one of our worst ever,” Trudy Thompson Rice, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Red Cross. “We’ve had a tremendous drought. We’re in a very dry cycle, with high winds. And it’s very, very hot.”
Rice spent Monday afternoon in a high school gym the Red Cross had converted into a shelter in Wickenberg, one of two shelters opened to house people affected by the Yarnell wildfire. The other is in Prescott.
Fifty-five people stayed overnight in the two shelters, where therapy dogs comforted visitors and nurses examined people who inhaled too much smoke or left medications behind when the fled.
But even whose houses stood in the path of the flames and might soon be homeless, appeared more shaken by the loss of the firefighters. “That’s what everyone is focused on right now,” Rice said. “They knew all these young firefighters. They taught them. They coached them in sports.”
At least 200 firefighters also battled the blaze Sunday, and more were on their way. Hundreds of homes are threatened, roads were closed and residents were given orders to evacuate, but could voluntarily remain with their homes if they wanted, Fraijo said.
Hotshot units are comprised of 20 people who study the science of wildfires and train hard to fight them. “The nature of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people’s experiences,” a website said.
The crews, whose name refers to being near the hottest part of a fire, began in southern California in the late 1940s. Over time, they earned a reputation as being among the most elite and fearless firefighters.
Each of about 110 crews have a home base — the Granite Mountain Hotshots team is part of the Prescott Fire Department — and often are sent throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico to fight wildfires.
They face environmental extremes, long hours, bad food, and steep and rugged terrain. Running, hiking, core abdomen training and yoga are included in the exercise regimen.
In April 2012, the Cronkite News Service described a Granite Mountain Hotshots training exercise in which members deployed the shelters.
A squad leader, Phillip “Mando” Maldonado, yelled, “Fire everywhere!” and the men dove to the ground and formed a tight circle, “feet toward the approaching flames.”
Maldonado instructed them to hold down the edges of the shelter to keep out fire, smoke and heat, the report said. They were told to hug the ground hard, so they could breathe cooler air that would have less of an impact on their lungs.
According to the report, the crew had eight full-time members. Others worked from April until the end of the fire season in September.
“I knew these folks,” Fraijo said. He called them excellent, dedicated employees who stayed in shape.
The chief said he had no way of knowing why some of his hot shot team, which started in 2002, and included veteran fighters of numerous wildfires in the west, did not survive.
“Typically they have a safety zone,” he said. “For whatever reason, they might not have made it [there]. I don’t know.”
Condolences came from officials across the nation. “Every day, thousands of brave Americans step up to protect people and property from the devastation of wildfire,” Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
“They put their own lives on the line to do so,” he said.
Washington Post staff writers Brady Dennis and Meeri Kim contributed to this report.
© 2013, The Washington Post