Ariz. Fire Still Out Of Control After 19 Firefighters Die
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
We begin this hour in the town of Prescott, Arizona, which is mourning the deaths of 19 firefighters killed battling a wildfire yesterday. All 19 were from one fire crew, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots based in Prescott. The investigation into what happened is just beginning. This is Dan Fraijo, the city's fire chief, speaking at a press conference today.
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DAN FRAIJO: Whatever may have happened there will be understood someday, and we will be able to take that terrible tragedy and hopefully be able to build on that and provide safety in terms of lessons learned and further training and those sorts of things.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, the Yarnell Hill fire is still burning out of control. It's destroyed more than 200 buildings and scorched more than 8,000 acres. NPR's Nate Rott is in Prescott. And, Nate, we said that the investigation is just beginning. But at this point, what have you learned about what happened to this crew?
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Well, Audie, not a whole lot in the way of specifics. We know that the crew had been on the fire - the Yarnell Hill fire - for a day, and we know that they were actively fighting it to protect property. Whether that means a home or not, we're not actually sure.
As they were doing that, though, the fire activity suddenly kicked up - and exploded is what people here are saying - and turned back towards the crew, which is the worst thing that can happen. Apparently, it was pushed by huge gusts of wind into vegetation that hadn't burned in almost 40 years.
All firefighters carry what is called a fire shelter, and 19 crew members were able to deploy theirs. Fire shelters are kind of like an aluminum foil-type material that makes a little cocoon over you and shields you from heat. Obviously it wasn't enough in this case. I also know that one crew member had been reassigned right before the fire changed direction, and he is the only survivor from that crew.
CORNISH: Tell us more about the Granite Mountain Hotshots. They're based there. This is a devastating loss for that community.
ROTT: Yeah. I mean, Hotshots crews are really the best of the best in the realm of wildland firefightingdom. They're known for that. They pride themselves on that. I talked with Mary Rasmussen, who works for the Southern Land Office down here, and she said that the Granite Mountain group really took that to heart.
MARY RASMUSSEN: This particular Hotshots crew is - they kind of have a reputation for being top-notch, elite. I mean, they take it seriously, and they train harder, and they have higher standards, you know? It's, yeah, it's 19 of them, 19 of the youngest and best out there just kind of wiped off the face of the Earth in a moment.
ROTT: And as you can tell, everyone here is just devastated.
CORNISH: Nate, you have experience as a wildland firefighter yourself. Give us some insight about what kind of training these firefighters get.
ROTT: Yeah. I mean, Audie, I - wildland firefighting safety is kind of the - it's the go-to. You know, you eat safety for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as we always said. It's the first thing you talk about in the morning, and it's the last thing you talk about at the end of the day.
Every morning, fire crews get a weather briefing where they talk about the dangers that the day may hold and kind of highlight some of them. And when they're actually on a fire, you're kind of constantly updating on what they call a situational awareness, and part of that is establishing an escape route, which is your way to get out if something goes wrong, and a safety zone. It's a place where you'd pretty much feel safe hunkering down in the event that a fire turns on you. Everyone I talked to here assured me that these guys would have established both of those, but obviously it wasn't enough.
CORNISH: Now, of course, there are hundreds of firefighters still out on the fire lines, with the Yarnell Hill fire still burning out of control. What's the outlook there?
ROTT: Well, it's not good. Temperatures are pushing 100 degrees here again today, and just outside - I'm looking out the car - I can see thunderheads building up to the south, which is exactly the same thing that happened yesterday before the fire kind of blew up on everyone. There are over five - 400 firefighters, pardon me, that are still out on the blaze, but they've got no containment as of yet.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Nate Rott in Prescott, Arizona. Nate, thank you.
ROTT: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: Sympathies are pouring in from far and wide for the Granite Mountain Hotshots. In Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, President Obama said, quote, "we are heartbroken about what happened." And he said the country's thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who died. The president promised his administration would help with the investigation. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called this one of our state's darkest, most devastating days. And Arizona Senator John McCain added that the sacrifice of this fire crew will never be forgotten.