— YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) — A sudden windstorm turned an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 firefighters, nearly all of them members of an elite crew of "hotshots," authorities said Monday. It was the nation's biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The flames swept over the victims Sunday evening as they took cover in their foil-lined emergency shelters.
"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."
The windblown, lightning-sparked fire — which had exploded fourfold to about 13 square miles by Monday morning — also destroyed dozens of homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
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.
The fire killed 18 members of a hotshot crew based in nearby Prescott, plus a firefighter who was not part of the unit, Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said.
One member of the hotshot crew survived because he was moving the unit's truck when the flames roared over the men, Reichling said.
"He's the only one who made it out because he was jockeying equipment at the time," Reichling said.
It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, but it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
Brian Klimowski, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Flagstaff office, said the wildfire area experienced a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. It's not known how powerful the winds were, but they were enough to cause the fire to grow in size from 200 acres to about 2,000 in the matter of hours Sunday.