Remains of 19 firefighters killed in Yarnell Hill Fire brought to Phoenix

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

19 killed, hundreds evacuated

YARNELL, Ariz. -- Nineteen young firefighters died while battling the Yarnell Hill Fire northwest of the Valley. Their remains were brought  to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office in a special procession Monday.

Passing under the arched ladders of two fire trucks with a large American flag billowing from another vehicle on a turnoff road, the caravan of vans arrived shortly after noon.

An Arizona forestry official confirmed that 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots  died while battling the wind-whipped blaze. Autopsies will determine exactly how each firefighter died.

A single firefighter from the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew survived. He was moving the unit's truck when massive flames swept over his team, said Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling.

The Prescott Fire Department has not released the names of any of the firefighters, but one reportedly is a third-generation firefighter.

The Yarnell Hill Fire started with a lightning strike Friday afternoon. Sunday morning, it was relatively small -- about 200 acres. High winds whipped up the flames late Sunday afternoon, causing the fire to grow to 2,000 acres, destroy at least 50 homes and threaten hundreds more.

By Monday morning, Carrie Templin of the Yarnell Fire Department said the fire had grown to an estimated 8,300 ares -- about 13 square miles. Containment was still at zero.

The Yarnell Hill Fire is deadliest wildfire in Arizona history and largest single-day firefighter loss since 9/11. According to the National Fire Protection Association, it also is the country's deadliest wildland fire since 1933.

According to 3TV Chief Meteorologist Royal Norman, a thunderstorm collapsed near the fire. Based on weather station data, the wind direction changed by about 180 degrees, with gusts reported up to 43 mph.

Matt Oss of Phoenix posted a time-lapse video of the shifting smoke on YouTube

The firefighters were caught when the fire suddenly changed direction and trapped them as they tried to deploy their emergency fire shelters. It's still not clear exactly what happened out there.

"The shelters are meant as a  very last resort, something that we train for, but we never envision it happening" Prescott Fire Department  spokesman Wade Ward told 3TV's Crystal Cruz Monday morning, just hours after the men were killed. "We're just trying to figure this all out, wrap our heads around it."

Shortly after 2 p.m., Norman said a similar storm was developing in the Prescott area. That storm could drop down to the Yarnell area within the next hour.

Dark day

"This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters," Gov. Jan Brewer in a statement. "They were battling the Yarnell Fire, near Prescott, when the fast-moving blaze overtook their position.

“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.”

Ordering that flags be flown at half-staff through sunset on Wednesday, Brewer went to Prescott to take part is a news conference Monday morning. 

Arizona Sen. John McCain expressed his shock in a statement, as well.

"This devastating loss is a reminder of the grave risks our firefighters take every day on our behalf in Arizona and in communities across this nation," he said. "Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

President Barack Obama paid his respects in a statement Monday morning. 

"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," he said. "In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest.

"The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need. But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy."

Granite Mountain Hotshots in training
Courtesy Cronkite News Service

The Prescott Fire Department said the Granite Mountain Hotshots, one of 110 such teams stationed throughout the country, made up about 20 percent of the agency. The average age of the team was 22.

50 homes burn

One man who lost his home says he saw embers on the roof of his garage in his rear view mirror as he fled.

Chuck Overmyer says he and his wife, Ninabill, left with their three dogs and a 1930 model hot rod on a trailer. They gathered at a nearby bar and grill along with other people and watched on TV as their 1,800-square-foot home went up in flames.

Early estimates were that 250 homes had burned. Dwight D'Evelyn of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office revised those numbers late Monday morning, saying that about 50 structures had been lost and the fire was threatening 250 homes and 25 commercial buildings.

Hundreds evacuated

The Yarnell Fire Department says residents of Yarnell, Peeples Valley, Buckhorn, Model Creek Subdivision homes and the Double Bar A Ranch have been ordered to evacuate.

The Yavapai County Sheriff's Office was going door to door Sunday notifying residents of the evacuation order.

Residents and small animals are being evacuated to several local shelters that have been set up. Large animals are being taken to the Hidden Springs Ranch.

Motorists should also be on alert when driving in the area.

The Arizona Department of Transportation says about 15 miles of State Route 89 have been closed due to the fire.

The closure extends from milepost 269 to milepost 285. Interstate 17 or US 93 are being suggested as alternate routes.

The American Red Cross Grand Canyon Chapter has set up several shelters for evacuees, offering food, water, and a place to sleep. Those locations are:
-Wickenburg High School (1090 S. Vulture Mine Road, Wickenburg)
-Yavapai College (1100 E. Sheldon St., Prescott)

In addition, the nearby town of Congress has opened its community center to evacuated Yarnell residents and their pets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.