Sunday was the deadliest day for firefighters since 9/11, when 19 members of a special “hotshot” squad were tragically killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill fire northwest of Phoenix.
As reported by CNN, the “hotshot” group is an elite team that fights fires close to the blaze and sets up barriers and escape passages to hinder the fire’s movement. Authorities are still determining what exactly happened in this incident, but reports have indicated that the inferno overwhelmed the squad and they employed the shelters they normally use as a last-ditch survival tool. The fire shelters are essentially aluminum blankets designed to block 100% of the heat from flames and hot gases and 95% of the radiant heat from the flames themselves.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told the media Sunday evening, "Our entire crew was lost. We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet. Right now, we're in crisis." The tragedy affected almost 20 percent of the Prescott Fire Department.
Fraijo said he wouldn’t speculate on the exact circumstances surrounding the firefighters' deaths, but he did say that drought conditions, combined with winds that whipped unpredictably, have made battling the flames especially difficult. He said the firefighters who died were exceptionally dedicated to their jobs.
Art Morrison, state forestry spokesperson said, "A hotshot crew are the elite firefighters. They're usually (a) 20-person crew, and they're the ones who actually go in and dig the fire line, cut the brush to make a fuel break. And so they would be as close to the fire as they felt they safely could.” He added, "In normal circumstances, when you're digging fire line, you make sure you have a good escape route, and you have a safety zone...Evidently, their safety zone wasn't big enough, and the fire just overtook them."
Incident commander Mike Reichling said the Yarnell fire began Friday and is believed to be started by lightning. It has scorched more than 6,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 structures.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and President Barack Obama expressed sadness over the loss of the fallen firefighters, and lauded their efforts. President Obama said in an official statement, "They were 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.”
A Facebook page in memory of the Arizona firefighters has received more than 120,000 "likes" in less than 10 hours. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has ordered state flags be flown at half-staff from sunrise Monday to sunset Wednesday, saying, "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."
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, before these deaths, 43 firefighters have been killed so far in 2013. Last year, a total of 83 firefighters died last year while on duty.