Yarnell Hill Fire burns more than 8,000 acres: 19 firefighters perish while battling blaze

Bodies of firefighters transported

YARNELL, Ariz. - The bodies of 19 firefighters killed battling the fast-moving Yarnell Hill Fire are being transported back to the Valley Monday as crews continue to fight the flames southwest of Prescott.

The blaze has grown to 8,374 acres as of 11 a.m. Monday, said Mary Rasmussen of the Southwest Area Incident Management Team. The deadly blaze is still at 0 percent containment and 400 fire personnel are battling the fire, according to 10News Scripps sister station KNXV-TV.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said all 19 of those killed were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew out of Prescott .

The bodies of all 19 firefighters have been recovered and are en route to the Valley for medical examinations, said Rasmussen.

"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city," Fraijo said at a news conference Sunday evening. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."

Reichling said that crews died when the winds turned around and they were caught in a bad situation. He said it was a catastrophic situation with dry vegetation fueling the fire.

“This fire was very radical in its behavior, the fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south, it turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon,” Reichling said. “That’s what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels.”

The "hotshot" firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters -- tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat -- when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison said.

Reichling said it is the biggest firefighter casualty in our state's history. It's also the deadliest in the U.S. for at least 30 years.

One member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots survived, Prescott Fire spokesman Wade Ward said.

That crew member was reportedly working in another location and was serving as a lookout for the Granite Mountain team.

The crew killed in the massive blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona. The unit was established in 2002.

The wildfire that sparked just southwest of Prescott after an apparent lightning strike grew from four acres to more than 6,000 acres Sunday, forcing the evacuation of several communities. It continued on its path Monday, surpassing 8,000 acres.

Reichling said of the 500 structures in Yarnell, including homes, business and sheds, half of them have been destroyed in the fire. No structures in Peeples Valley have been affected as of yet.

As of 8 a.m. on Monday there were 18 engines, 18 fire crews, 8 support water tenders, 2 crash/rescue vehicles, 2 structure protection vehicles, and 4 dozers. On order are more 20-person hotshot crews, type 2 hand crews and other firefighting personnel and equipment.

A Type 1 Incident Command Team will assume responsibility for the fire at or before 6 p.m. Monday.

Reichling said there were four planes working the fire. Fire crews are expected to be on scene for at least a week.

Officials said the fire is burning west of State Route 89, between Yarnell and Peeples Valley, and as more resources are being called in, evacuation centers have been set up at Yavapai Community College and Wickenburg High School.

As of 4 p.m. on Sunday, residents of the Model Creek Subdivision homes, the Double Bar A Ranch and the Buckhorn subdivision had been ordered to evacuate. In addition, an order to evacuate was issued for Peeples Valley west of State Route 89, north of Yarnell Road and and south of Sorrell Road. Also included in the evacuation order is the town of Yarnell. All were notified by telephone, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office.

Officials say approximately 600 people are under mandatory evacuation. Sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said deputies had completed evacuations and would be maintaining road blocks in the area.

Residents and small animals were initially being evacuated to the Yavapai Community College located at 1100 E. Sheldon in Prescott, Ariz. Large animals are being evacuated to the Hidden Springs Ranch located on Highway 89 just southwest of Hayes Ranch Road.

There is also an evacuation center at Wickenburg High School.

At 8 a.m. the Arizona Department of Transportation said about 15 miles of State Route 89 was closed just north of Congress to south of Kirkland. Drivers traveling northbound can use US 93 or Interstate 17 as alternate routes.

The temperature in Yarnell is expected to reach up to 102 degrees on Monday. Winds are out of the southwest at 5 miles per hour. There is a 20 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms.

Officials said the Yarnell Valley has been in a drought for about 10 years and the materials fueling the fire are very dry, helping the fire spread fast.

Reichling said the area hasn't had a major fire in 40 years.