Clues sought in Arizona firefighter deaths

2013-07-02 10:01
Los Angeles - Investigators began the long search for clues on Monday into how 19 elite firefighters were killed by a fast-moving wildfire in Arizona.

The young firefighters, with an average age of just 22, died on Sunday when they were overrun by flames as they battled the blaze in tinder-dry brush near the town of Yarnell, 135km north-west of Phoenix.

It was the deadliest day for firefighters since the 11 September attacks of 2001, and the deadliest wildland fire since 1933, according to the US National Wildfire Co-ordinating Group.

The Yarnell Hills fire was sparked by lightning on Friday and ignited as the western United States is suffering under a record heat wave.

The fire is estimated to have destroyed about 250 homes in Yarnell, or half the town, the Arizona Republic said.

Tributes poured in from around the nation from the White House down. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer broke down in tears as she called the loss "unbearable".

Firefighters still at task

"For now we mourn," she said.

On the ground however, 400 firefighters stuck to their task, protecting structures on the eastern flank of the blaze as crews recovered the bodies and investigators combed the fatal site.

"We don't know specifics at this time of why events added up the way they did," said Mary Rasmussen, a spokesperson for the incident commanders. She said the fire was 0% contained on Monday morning, and had burned around 3 400 hectares.

The victims were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team typically sent in first to help cut off fires. The team had deployed emergency heat shelters but did not survive the intensity of the flames when the fire quickly turned, according to Mike Reichling, Arizona State forestry Division spokesperson.

"The fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south," Reichling told local station KNXV. But the winds turned around and "that's what caused the deaths".

US President Barack Obama praised the firefighters as "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".

'Perfect storm'

The fire occurred on a weekend of record temperatures across the western US, with Death Valley in eastern California recording a temperature of 54°C, according to the Los Angeles Times. The hot weather is expected to continue to the end of the week.

"It had to be a perfect storm in order for this to happen. Their situational awareness and their training was at such a high level that it's unimaginable that this has even happened," Prescott Fire Department spokesperson Wade Ward told NBC's Today programme.

"We are devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you will ever meet," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said on Sunday night. "We're going through a terrible crisis right now."

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