The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

July 1, 2013

More elite fire crews go to Ariz. after 19 killed

(Continued)

The team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to Yarnell, entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.

The disaster all but wiped out the Prescott hotshot crew, leaving the city's fire department reeling.

"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."

A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based. Prescott resident Keith Gustafson showed up and placed 19 water bottles in the shape of a heart.

"When I heard about this, it just hit me hard," he said. "It hit me like a ton of bricks."

Hotshot crews go through specialized training and are sent in to battle the nation's fiercest wildfires. Sometimes they hike for miles into the wilderness with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.

As a last-ditch effort at survival, members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with a tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Fraijo said.

"It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions," Fraijo said.

Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their shelters.

More than 200 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the wildfire as of Monday morning. They included 18 hotshot crews from around the country. Such crews typically have about 20 members each. The number of hotshot crews assigned to the fire is expected to at least double, Reichling said.

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