PRESCOTT, Ariz. — With no way out, the 19 elite firefighters did what they were trained to do when trapped by a wildfire: They unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant tarps and rushed to cover themselves on the ground.
But that last, desperate line of defense couldn’t save the “Hotshot” crew from the flames that swept over them.
All 19 men died, marking the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based at Prescott, authorities said Monday as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain in the town of Yarnell. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.
The deaths plunged the two small towns into mourning as the wildfire continued to threaten one of them, Yarnell.
Arizona’s governor called it “as dark a day as I can remember” and ordered flags flown at half-staff. In a heartbreaking sight, a long line of white vans carried the bodies to Phoenix for autopsies.
“I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today,” said Gov. Jan Brewer, her voice catching several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School in the town of 40,000.
The lightning-sparked fire — which spread to 13 square miles by Monday morning — destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department said.
About 200 more firefighters joined the battle Monday, bringing the total to 400. Among them were several other Hotshot teams, elite groups of firefighters sent in from around the country to battle the nation’s fiercest wildfires.
Residents huddled in shelters and restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped, and state officials were investigating.
Brewer said the blaze “exploded into a firestorm” that overran the crew.
Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo said the wind changed directions and brought 40 mph to 50 mph gusts that caused the firefighters to become trapped around 3 p.m. Sunday. The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.
Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, and it appears the fire’s erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims deployed their emergency shelters as they were trained to do.
When there is no way out, firefighters are supposed to step into them, lie face down on the ground and pull the fire-resistant fabric completely over themselves. The shelter is designed to reflect heat and trap cool breathable air inside for a few minutes while a wildfire burns over a person. But its success depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging inferno of heat and hot gases.
The glue holding the layers of the shelter together begins to come apart at about 500 degrees, well above the 300 degrees that would almost immediately kill a person.
“It’ll protect you, but only for a short amount of time. If the fire quickly burns over you, you’ll probably survive that,” said Prescott Fire Capt. Jeff Knotek.
But “if it burns intensely for any amount of time while you’re in that thing, there’s nothing that’s going to save you from that.”
Autopsies were scheduled to determine exactly how the firefighters died.
The U.S. has 110 Hotshot crews, according to the U.S. Forest Service website. They typically have about 20 members each and go through specialized training.