ARNELL, Ariz. — The fast-moving wildfire that killed 19 firefighters here Sunday is now more than quadruple in size, as crews battle triple-digit heat and erratic winds in an effort to contain the blaze.
Gusting winds and dry grass fed the blaze as it tore through the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. An estimated 200 homes and many businesses had been destroyed as the lightning-sparked fire spread to nearly 8,400 acres from 2,000 acres overnight.
Eighteen of the 19 dead were part of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott in the worst wildland firefighter tragedy in the U.S. since 25 were killed in 1933’s Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles. It’s also the worst death toll for firefighters since 9/11.
Roy Hall, the incident commander at the Arizona Division of Forestry, said the deaths of the 19 firefighters remain under investigation. There was a moment of silence held.
President Obama hailed the fallen as heroes.
In a statement released as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said Monday, “Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters.”
“It’s a dark day,” said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.
Reichling said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that had 19 emergency fire shelters deployed. Some of were found inside their shelters; tent-like structures meant to shield flames and heat. They are typically used as a last resort.
“The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this incident,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
Reichling said the number of firefighters on the scene will reach 400.
It’s the worst firefighting tragedy ever in Arizona, eclipsing the 1990 Dude Fire near Payson, which claimed six firefighters.
Fraijo said one member of the local hotshot crew survived because he was not with the other members when they were caught in the blaze.
Erratic winds, dry fuel and monsoon-like weather created conditions for the fire to spread quickly, Reichling said. He added that the winds changed direction on the hotshot crew.
“They were caught up in a very bad situation,” he said.
Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.
“They died heroes,” she said, crying. “And we’ll miss them. We love them.”