Shocking aerial images show utter devastation left when deadly blaze tore through Arizona town burning homes to the ground and scorching the earth
- 19 firefighters confirmed dead near Arizona town of Yarnell
- Victims include an expectant father who was a Marine Corps veteran and two men who took after their fire captain fathers to become firefighters
- Fire broke out after lightning strike on Friday and burned 8,400 acres
- 200 homes burned and around 1,000 people have evacuated the area
- President Obama declared the firefighters ‘heroes’
- More firefighters on their way to help as the fire continues to burn
By Ashley Collman, Becky Evans and Lydia Warren
PUBLISHED: 22:57 EST, 1 July 2013
The first aerial pictures have emerged showing the utter devastation of the Arizona town where 19 courageous firefighters lost their lives battling wild fires on Sunday.
The sobering images show homes burned to the grown and charred forest in Yarnell following the worst rural firefighting tragedy in 80 years.
The brave men – whose average age was just 27 – were outflanked and engulfed by wind-whipped flames in seconds, before some could scramble into cocoon-like personal shelters.
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The bodies of the elite firefighting crew who perished were retrieved from the mountain where they died on Monday and later, authorities named all of the victims.
Helicopters had been unable to reach the highly-trained men as they fought the flames in Yarnell and they could not be saved by their emergency shelters – tent-like structures meant to shield them from flames and heat.
When they were found on Sunday, all 19 shelters were deployed but some of the men’s bodies were inside their individual shelters, while others were outside – indicating just how suddenly they were overcome by the flames.
Loss: Kevin Woyjeck, left, and Wade Parker, right, were among the firefighters who lost their lives on Sunday as they tried to battle a massive wildfire in Yarnell Hill, Arizona. Nineteen firefighters were killed
Loved: The bodies of Wade Parker, 22, left, and 21-year-old Woyjeck, right, were retrieved on Monday
COURAGE UNDER FIRE: NAMES OF 19 BRAVE FIREFIGHTERS RELEASED
Andrew Ashcraft – 29
Robert Caldwell – 23
Travis Carter – 31
Dustin Deford – 24
Christopher MacKenzie – 30
Eric Marsh – 43
Grant McKee – 21
Sean Misner – 26
Scott Norris – 28
Wade Parker – 22
John Percin – 24
Anthony Rose – 23
Jesse Steed – 36
Joe Thurston – 32
Travis Turbyfill – 27
William Warneke – 25
Clayton Whitted – 28
Kevin Woyjeck – 21
Garret Zuppiger – 27
‘It had to be a perfect storm in order for this to happen,’ Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward told the Today show.
‘Their situational awareness and their training was at such a high level that it’s unimaginable that this has even happened.’
Among the victims is Billy Warneke, a Marine Corps veteran who served a tour in Iraq and who was expecting his first child with his wife Roxanne this December, family told The Press Enterprise.
The 25-year-old had joined the fire department just three months ago.
Also killed was Kevin Woyjeck, who followed in the footsteps of his father, a fire captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
His grandmother told the Long Beach Press Telegram that Kevin, originally from Seal Beach, California, had been a firefighter for around four years.
Another firefighter’s son lost his life; Capt. Michael MacKenzie, who was once the captain of Moreno Valley, California, said his son Chris died in the flames.
Chris MacKenzie joined the Forest Service in 2004 and had been in the Prescott Fire Department for two years
Missed: She had been married to Andrew Ashcraft, pictured, for seven years and they have four children
Other firefighters who have been identified include the Hotshots superintendent Eric Marsh, 22-year-old Wade Parker and father-of-four Andrew Ashcraft.
Ashcraft’s widow, Juliann, was seen sobbing by a makeshift memorial in Prescott for the fallen firefighters. She said she learned of his death while watching the news with their four children.
‘They died heroes,’ she told azcentral.com as she wept. ‘And we’ll miss them. We love them.’
The tragedy is the deadliest single incident for firefighters since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, where as many as 340 crew members lost their lives, officials said. It is also the deadliest wildland blaze for firefighters in the U.S. for 80 years.
‘Our entire crew was lost,’ Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told reporters. ‘We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. Right now, we’re in crisis.’
President Obama called the firefighters heroes and highly skilled professionals who ‘put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.’
The highly-skilled team was overtaken by a fast-moving blaze stoked by hot winds on Sunday.
The fire was sparked by a lightning strike on Friday and spread to at least 8,400 acres amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions.
The fire has also destroyed an estimated 200 homes, Morrison said. Dry grass near the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla fed the fast-moving blaze.
It continues to burn, with flames lighting up the night sky in the forest above Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. The area has not suffered a fire in 40 years.
It was unclear exactly how the crew became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the team and its commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire’s erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
TOUGH BUT KIND: WHO ARE THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN HOTSHOTS?
Eighteen of the 19 firefighters who lost their lives were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting team from Prescott, Arizona.
To join, candidates must complete a boot camp-style test to prove they are in peak physical condition. They have to run 1.5 miles in 10 minutes and 35 seconds, complete 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds, 25 push-ups in 60 seconds, and seven pull-ups.
Members trained by running, hiking, yoga, doing core exercises and weight training.
‘Problem solving, teamwork, ability to make decisions in a stressful environment and being nice are the attributes of our crewmembers,’ its website read.
After a fire breaks out, they hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and the blaze. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
The crew had battled fires in New Mexico and Arizona in recent weeks. The team, which was formed in 2002, is part of the Prescott Fire Department, the oldest in the state. The deaths mean that Prescott has lost a staggering 20 per cent of its department.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that the 19 firefighters were a part of the city’s fire department. With their deaths, the department lost 20 per cent of its members.
‘We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,’ he said at a news conference Sunday evening. ‘We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.’
Hot shot crews are elite firefighters who often 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 homes and cities.
The crew killed in the blaze had worked on other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona, Fraijo said.
‘By the time they got there, it was moving very quickly,’ he said.
He added that the firefighters had to deploy the emergency shelters when ‘something drastic’ occurred.
‘One of the last fail safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective – kinda looks like a foil type – fire-resistant material – with the desire, the hope at least, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it,’ Fraijo said.
‘Under certain conditions there’s usually only sometimes a 50 per cent chance that they survive,’ he said. ‘It’s an extreme measure that’s taken under the absolute worst conditions.’
Nineteen shelters were deployed and some of the firefighters were found inside them, Mike Reichling from the Arizona State Forestry Division told the Arizona Republic. Others were found outside them.
The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.
U.S. wildfire disasters date back more than two centuries and include tragedies like the 1949 Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Montana, that killed 13, or the Rattlesnake blaze four years later that claimed 15 firefighters in Southern California.
‘This is as dark a day as I can remember,’ Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement.
‘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.’
KILLED WHILE PROTECTING THEIR COUNTRY: DEADLIEST U.S. FIRES
Ahead of this devastating Arizona blaze, the National Fire Protection Association listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Fourteen firefighters were killed by a sudden explosion of flames.
The association lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles, which killed 29.
The most firefighters – 340 – killed in a blaze not confined to wildlands lost their lives in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Other tragedies have included the 1949 Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Montana that killed 13, or the Rattlesnake blaze that claimed 15 lives in Southern California four years later.
Brewer said she would travel to the area on Monday.
Two hundred firefighters were working on the fire Sunday, but several hundred more were expected to arrive Monday when a new fire management team takes over.
The fire has forced the closure of parts of state Route 89. It was zero per cent contained late Sunday.
The Red Cross has opened two shelters in the area – at Yavapai College in Prescott and at the Wickenburg High School gym.
Prescott, which is more than 30 miles northeast of Yarnell, is one of the only cities in the United States that has a hot shot fire crew, Fraijo said.
The unit was established in 2002, and the city also has 75 suppression team members.
Chuck Overmyer and his wife, Ninabill, said they lost their, 1,800-square-foot home in the blaze.
They were helping friends flee when the blaze switched directions and moved toward his property.
They loaded up what belongings they could, including three dogs and a 1930 model hot rod on a trailer. As he looked out his rear view mirror he could see embers on the roof of his garage.
‘We knew it was gone,’ he said.
He later gathered at the Arrowhead Bar and Grill in nearby Congress along with locals and watched on TV as he saw the fire destroy his house.
‘That was when we knew it was really gone,’ he said.
He later fielded a phone call from a friend in which he said, ‘Lost it all, man. Yep, it’s all gone.’
Morrison said the fire grew in intensity when winds began gusting at up to 24mph in the late afternoon. ‘You get some winds, and it can take off on you,’ he said.
Backup: 200 firefighters and four planes are battling the blaze with 130 more firefighters on their way