Nineteen firefighters – all members of an elite response team – were killed Sunday battling a fast-moving wildfire in Arizona, marking the deadliest single incident for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, officials said. The fire, which investigators believe was sparked by lightning, has also destroyed more than 200 buildings in the town of Yarnell, Arizona; which is home to about 700 people.

A spokeswoman for the Prescott National Forest, said all 19 killed were members of the 20-strong Granite Mountain Hotshots, a Prescott, Arizona.-based crew who battled blazes in New Mexico and Arizona in recent weeks. Officials said the one surviving member of the Hotshots crew had been at a different location.  Team members were alert to the risks, but in this case, there were, extreme burning conditions and some unusual winds that suddenly engulfed them.

Authorities told the Associated Press that the 19 were caught while trying to deploy their fire shelters, tents designed to trap in breathable air and shield the firefighters from flames and heat.

A web page for the Granite Mountain Hotshots describes the team’s history of safe and aggressive fire suppression.  “Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure,” it says.  “We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fire line tasks.”  It is the assigned task of hotshot teams to go into an area and attempt to create “fire breaks” by clearing areas of possible fuel.  This is often done right next to an area of current burning and is often referred to as having one foot in the black and one foot in the green.

The National Fire Protection Associationsays the only wild land fires to kill more people were at Griffith Park, Los Angeles, in 1933, where 29 died, and the Devil’s Broom wildfire at Silverton, Idaho, in 1910, in which 86 firefighters lost their lives.  The attack on the World Trade Center resulted in the deaths of 340 firefighters.

The blaze, which started Friday, began during a punishing heat wave in which temperatures reached well into triple-digits.  Officials were stating that hot, dry conditions were adding to the intensity of the fire.  About 200 firefighters were battling the blaze late Sunday and some 400 were planned on being deployed Monday.  These “heroes are”, as described by the President, as “highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.”

It is especially hard to lose firefighters when they are your neighbors and your friends who are out there battling these fires in a direct hand to hand combat, in often times in rugged terrain, and under extreme conditions.  Until you are on the front lines of a fire, you cannot imagine a worst place to be and  my prayers go out to those families who lost loved-ones in this tragedy.

 

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