AN ELITE team of 19 American firemen have been killed after becoming trapped by a wall of flames while fighting a wildfire in central Arizona.
The “Hotshots”, as they were known, tried to stay alive by digging ditches and covering themselves with emergency fire shelters, but they perished in what was the worst incident in the United States involving firefighters since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The crew, called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, were en route to clear brush in a bid to prevent the spread of a wildfire sparked by lightning that threatened the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles north-west of Phoenix, when they became trapped by the flames on Sunday afternoon.
Yesterday, it remained unclear exactly what had happened, but 19 fire shelters were deployed, and some of the firefighters’ bodies were found inside them, while others were outside the shelters.
Two other members of the unit who suffered severe burns were flown to a burns treatment centre in Phoenix.
Dan Fraijo, fire chief in the nearby city of Prescott, said: “We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city.
“We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
Mr Fraijo also explained the reason the shelters were deployed by the men. He said: “One of the last fail-safe methods a firefighter can do is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective fire-resistant material, with the hope that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it.
“Under certain conditions, there’s usually only a 50 per cent chance that they survive. It’s an extreme measure that’s taken under the absolute worst conditions.”
Dwight Devlin, from the Arizona sheriff’s office said: “Some were actually found with those blankets over them, but unfortunately it appears the flames and the heat were too much.”
President Barack Obama, who is on a state visit to South Africa, described the firefighters as “heroes” who had “put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and the property of their fellow citizens”.
John McCain, the US senator for Arizona, said the families of the dead were in the thoughts and prayers of all Americans. “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.”
The Hotshots were highly trained, with high standards of fitness.
Firefighters are required to take an 80-hour critical training course and refresher each year, and they are also offered fire safety courses.
Each has to pass a test carrying a work pack, as well as run one and a half miles (2.4km) in 10 minutes 35 seconds. They also have to complete 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds, 25 push-ups in 60 seconds, and seven pull-ups.
The group’s website says: “Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure.”
The Prescott Hotshot crew was formed in 2002 and is one of 110 crews in the US.
The crews can hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of houses and centres of population.
This particular crew had worked on other wildfires in recent weeks, in New Mexico and Arizona.
The latest fire was sparked by a lightning strike on Friday and quickly spread across the tinder-dry landscape until the flames covered 2,000 acres and swept through parts of Yarnell, an old gold mining town of 700 residents, 85 miles north-west of Phoenix. Residents were forced to snatch up their belongings and flee for their lives ahead of the flames.
Adria Shayne, 52, grabbed only her parrot, Jingles, her dog, Spanky, and cat, Gizmo. “It was get up and go,” she said.
Her “nice little house”, which was the only one in the town with a white picket fence, was totally destroyed. When she saw it, she said: “Oh god, it’s all gone.”
Aerial video footage showed law enforcement vehicles patrolling Yarnell, driving along streets with burned buildings on both sides.
Yesterday the number of firefighters tackling the blaze was doubled to 400 and supported by helicopters and a DC-10 dropping slurry.
The National Weather Service said there was a 30 per cent chance of thunderstorms and showers in the Yarnell area. Rain could help slow the fire, but the forecast also said the storms could produce gusty winds that would fan the flames.
Jan Brewer, Arizona’s governor said: “This is as dark a day as I can remember. 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.”
Until this disaster, 21 firefighters had been killed in Arizona since 1955.
The tragedy is the worst in a wildfire since 1933, when 29 firemen died battling a fire in Griffin Park, Los Angeles. The biggest loss of firefighters was 341, and two paramedics, on 9/11.