Weather a concern for crews on Yarnell Hill Fire; military sending C-130s to help

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland
By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

YARNELL, Ariz. -- Even as Prescott, the state and the entire nation mourn the deaths of 19 wildland firefighters, hundreds more firefighters are struggling to get a handle on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

"It's really difficult to get a handle on and comprehend what's gone down here in the last few days," Karen Takai of the Southwest Incident Management Team said Tuesday morning.

The deadly fire has burned an estimated 8,400 acres -- about 13 square miles -- and destroyed about 200 homes and other structures. The numbers have been fluctuating because many homes have outbuildings. That has made it difficult for on-site teams to get an accurate count.

"There hasn't been any grow the during the night," Karen Takai of the Southwest Incident Management Team said Tuesday morning. "We had great recovery with the humidities and less winds."

Takai said hundreds firefighters are focusing on the work they need to do to get a handle on the fire.

Mother Nature is not making that work easy.

Weather is always a concern when it comes to battling wildfires. That perhaps is even more true considered what happened Sunday.

Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped and killed when the wind suddenly shifted, possibly because of a collapsed thunderstorm, while they were out on the fire lines.

"We are just going to be as cautious as we can during this incident to make sure that that does not happen again," Takai said.

While Monday was relatively mild on the weather front, there is the possibility of more lightning, which is what sparked the Yarnell Hill Fire, and gusty winds like the one that fanned it into an out-of-control conflagration.

Chopper 3 was planning to head north to the Yarnell area Tuesday morning, but the weather conditions there made it unsafe to fly. 3TV's Ryan O'Donnell caught video of some lightning strikes in the area before sunrise.

"We saw them in front of us, behind us. We saw them to the west of us -- all around here," O'Donnell said during a live report. 

In addition to the lightning, the wind has picked up throughout the morning, which is not good news for firefighters. The wind can pick up embers and spread them, sparking new fires.

Between 400 and 500 firefighters have been assigned to the Yarnell Fire. There are 18 engines, eight water tenders and four bulldozers.

Extremely dry vegetation is fueling the fire.

"Once an ember gets into those extremely dry fuels, that fire is going to rip," Takai said. "These fuels are just incredibly dry. It's extremely volatile."

Air tankers and helicopters worked the fire from the air Monday.

At last check, there was no containment, but the Yarnell Hill Fire is the top priority in the country and more help is on the way.

According to CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr the Pentagon will send four specially equipped C-130 firefighting aircraft from Colorado to Arizona Tuesday.

The C-130s will come from the Air Force National Guard and Air Force Reserve. They are called “The Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System” or MAFFS and when loaded with water or fire retardant can drop 3,000 gallons in less than five seconds. The retardant covers an area one-quarter of a mile long and 60 feet wide. It can return to base, reload and be airborne again in under 20 minutes.
(Photos of the C-130s in action)

The military deployment is coming at the request of civilian firefighting authorities asking for additional support.

While the MAFFS are powerful weapons in battling wildfires, their payloads are smaller than those of the DC-10 Air Tankers. Tanker 910 and Tanker 911 can carry up to 12,000 gallons of water or fire retardant each. Those planes are deployed by the U.S. Forest Service to fires throughout the country as needed.

Even though containment remains at zero, fire crews told O'Donnell that the flames that were edging toward Highway 89, and had even jumped the roadway in some places, have retreated about 2,000 feet.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in place, which means all residents can do is watch and wait.

Takai said that in her experience, evacuations usually last an average of five to seven days.

"It could be a little longer or shorter, but the average is five to seven days," she said. "It's difficult to sit at a friend's house and/or a shelter and wonder all day long whether your house is standing, whether you still have your possessions there. It is heart-wrenching."

"Try to help each other go through this. That's probably the most important thing you can do -- help your neighbor," she continued. "We need you to just be strong. We'll get through this. This'll be behind us some day."

Takai did not estimate when the evacuation order might be lifted.

"We can't let the community in there until we're 100 percent sure that those embers are gone ...," she said. The concern is that the wind might whip up smoldering embers hiding in the rugged terrain.

Media briefing -- Tuesday @ 8:30 a.m.

Gov. Jan Brewer already signed an order declaring a state of emergency in Yavapai County. That order frees up state money for emergency response and recovery efforts. It also allows the mobilization of the Arizona National Guard to protect people and property.

Two community meetings will be held Tuesday -- one in Wickenburg and one in Prescott.

CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this story.