YARNELL, Ariz. —
An out-of-control blaze overtook an elite group of firefighters trained to battle the nation’s fiercest wildfires, killing 19 members as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields.
It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. in decades.
The lightning-sparked fire, which spread to at least 2,000 acres amid triple-digit temperatures, also destroyed 200 homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Residents huddled in shelters and local restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
The disaster Sunday afternoon all but wiped out the 20-member Hotshot fire crew based in nearby Prescott, leaving the city’s fire department reeling.
“We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said at a news conference Sunday evening. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
A total of 250 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the fire as of Sunday. Fire managers said a top-level management team and another four Hotshot crews were on the way Monday. They typically have 20 members each.
Spokesmen for fire managers did not immediately respond to requests for comment early Monday.
The National Weather Service said there’s a 30 percent of thunderstorms and showers Monday in the Yarnell area. Rain could help slow the fire, but the forecast also says the storms could produce gusty winds.
Television aerial video footage showed law enforcement vehicles patrolling Yarnell, driving streets with burned buildings on both sides.
The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire of Los Angeles, which killed 29. The most firefighters — 340 — were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, according to the website.