Arizona Community "Devastated" After Deaths of 19 Firefighters

Some of the firefighters were found under fire-resistant shelters deployed as a last resort

By Jonathan Lloyd and Christina Cocca
|  Wednesday, Jul 3, 2013  |  Updated 11:13 AM PDT
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An Arizona community is devastated by the deaths of 19 members of a firefighting crew killed battling a wildfire burning northeast of Phoenix. Jennifer Bjorklund reports for the NBC4 News at noon on Monday, July 1, 2013.

An Arizona community is devastated by the deaths of 19 members of a firefighting crew killed battling a wildfire burning northeast of Phoenix. Jennifer Bjorklund reports for the NBC4 News at noon on Monday, July 1, 2013.

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Colleagues, friends and family members are mourning 19 members of an Arizona firefighting crew killed when they were overtaken Sunday by a 13-square-mile fire burning northeast of Phoenix in one of the deadliest days in decades for firefighters involved in a wildfire attack.

Read: Deadliest Firefighting Days 

The bodies of some of the firefighters were found inside fire-resistant shields that usually are deployed as a last resort. The 19 victims were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team, an elite firefighting crew deployed to help cut off the fire, according to fire officials. 

"We're devastated," said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. "We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."

Previous information indicated only 18 of the 19 victims were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team, but Fraijo confirmed during a news conference Monday that all 19 were part of the Hotshots crew. 

A 20th member of the Hot Shots crew was serving as a lookout when the lightning-sparked fire overtook his colleagues.

Two firefighters from Southern California were among those killed.

"Whatever may have happened there will be understood someday," Fraijo said of launching an investigation into the deaths of the firefighters.

The fire remained at 0 percent containment Monday afternoon.

"To the friends and family of those lost yesterday, I know we can never fully repay the sacrifices made by your loved ones, but we can honor their service through our gratitude and prayers, and through our steadfast dedication to do whatever is necessary to bring this fire under control before it causes any more heartache," Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a news conference Monday.

Brewer signed a declaration of emergency to make more resources available to battle the blaze, including a grant requested to federal officials that would cover most of the cost.

The fight Sunday against the 8,000-acre wildfire near the community of Yarnell (map), about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, marks one of the deadliest days for firefighters involved in a wildland fire fight in decades. The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles, which killed 29.

Eighty-six firefighters were killed in the Devil's Bloom wildfire, which burned in Idaho in 1910. In 1994, the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.

In 2006, five U.S. Forest Service firefighters were overcome by fire as they battled the 41,000-acre Esperanza fire, an arson fire that led to the conviction of a man on five counts of first-degree murder. The men were attempting to defend an empty home at the end of a road. 

The shelters deployed during Sunday's firefight are designed to protect firefighters when the situation becomes desperate. Hotshot crew members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with the tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said. 

Under ideal circumstances, the fire will burn over the shelters. 

"It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions," Fraijo said.

Nineteen fire shelters were deployed, and some of the firefighters were found inside them, while others were outside the shelters, Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, told the Arizona Republic.

Hotshot crews go through specialized training and are often deployed soon after a fire breaks out. Sometimes they hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities. This crew had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona.

Prescott, which is more than 30 miles northeast of Yarnell, is home to one of 110 Hotshot crews in the United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service website. The unit was established in 2002, and the city also has 75 suppression team members.

The victims' identities were released Monday afternoon, and are listed below.

"This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters," Brewer said in a statement. "It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: fighting fires is dangerous work. The risk is well-known to the brave men and women who don their gear and do battle against forest and flame.

"When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all."

Most people had evacuated from the town, and no injuries or other deaths were reported during the lightning-sparked fire, which began Friday evening. The fire destroyed at least 200 homes.

The city of Prescott released names of the 19 firefighters killed in the blaze. Fourteen of the victims were in their 20s:

Andrew Ashcraft, 29
Kevin Woyjeck, 21
Anthony Rose, 23
Eric Marsh, 43
Christopher MacKenzie, 30
Robert Caldwell, 23
Clayton Whitted, 28
Scott Norris, 28
Dustin Deford, 24
Sean Misner, 26
Garret Zuppiger, 27
Travis Carter, 31
Grant McKee, 21
Travis Turbyfill, 27
Jesse Steed, 36
Wade Parker, 22
Joe Thurston, 32
William Warneke, 25
John Percin, 24

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