19 Firefighters Die Battling Arizona's Yarnell Fire

More than a dozen firefighters in Arizona were killed on Sunday as they were battling the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott. It was the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. in decades.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

We are following a devastating story this morning out of Arizona. Nineteen firefighters were killed yesterday as they battled a wildfire in the small community of Yarnell. This is about 80 miles northwest of the city of Phoenix. We haven't seen this many firefighters killed battling a wildfire since 1933. All of those killed yesterday were apparently from one crew from the city of Prescott.

And here's the voice of Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo.

DAN FRAIJO: We're devastated. We just lost 19 of some the finest people you'll ever meet. I mean, right now, we're in crisis. I hope my demeanor now does not represent how we all feel. It just happens to be the job that I have at the moment. But truly, we're going through a terrible crisis right now.

GREENE: NPR's Ted Robbins has been following this story. And, Ted, what was this fire like? Why was it so deadly?

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: These firefighters were trying to protect a small ranching town, Yarnell, from the approaching fire, and the wind began blowing in the late afternoon. It was like 40, 45 mile-an-hour gusts. Apparently, what happened was the fire suddenly changed directions. It came right at the firefighters. It's called a flashover fire, because it spreads through the fuel and the ground so fast, the brush and trees. There's just hardly any time to react to it. The firefighters were all working together. Apparently, they died together.

GREENE: Were they trained for situations like this, for something like this flashover fires, as you describe it?

ROBBINS: Absolutely. These were all members of a crew called the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Now, Hotshots are the name that are given to these elite firefighters. They are the best-trained. They're in the finest condition. These are not people who drive fire trucks or work from water tankers. They go into areas on foot. They wear 40, 50 pounds of gear. They carry shovels, chainsaws. They create fire lines to protect areas from damage. They'll carry food and water. They'll stay out for days. They do wear fireproof suits, and they carry individual fire shelters on their back in backpacks.

There are reports that some of them - at least some of them - tried to use those shelters. But they're really - they're kind of like tinfoil tents. I tested one in the past, and they only work for a short time, if the fire's moving very quickly.

And online photographs of this Granite Mountain Hotshot team show a group of relatively young-looking men and one woman. Although, you know, I want to say, that the victims have not yet been publicly identified yet. So we don't know for sure whether the people in those photographs were the ones who died. Dan Fraijo, the Prescott Fire chief we heard from, said there were 20 members of the crew in all, and he said that only one was not in the area when the tragedy happened.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, is this fire still burning, Ted? Could it still cause more destruction?

ROBBINS: Yeah, the town of Yarnell has about 600 residents, and they've been evacuated. We've heard that 200 homes have burned. But, you know, David, much of the West is in drought, and fires are burning in a number of places. This crew, in fact, was - had recently fought other fires in Arizona and New Mexico. This fire started by lightning on Friday, and as of last night, it wasn't that big, as wildfires go. It was between a thousand and 2,000 acres.

GREENE: And this area, we said northwest of Phoenix. I mean, I know Flagstaff is up farther to the north. What is this terrain like?

ROBBINS: Yeah. Flagstaff is in higher country, you know, pine, spruce forest. This is lower. It's - and, in fact, the town of Yarnell couldn't be situated worse for the conditions. It's pretty much surrounded by hills which are covered with brush and scrub oak and really dry brush. The fire was named the Yarnell Hill Fire, because it started in the hills and swept down. And the temperatures - you know, the temperatures have just been horrendous, well over 100 degrees.

GREENE: Which surely doesn't help. We've been talking to NPR's Ted Robbins about a tragedy in Arizona, the death of 19 firefighters who were battling a blaze there.

Ted, thanks a lot.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

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