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19 Veteran Firefighters Die in Arizona Blaze, the Worst Wildfire Disaster in 80 Years

A fire at Yarnell Hill, Arizona over the weekend killed 19 experienced firefighters

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Firefighters stand near the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona over the weekend. Photo: National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Over the weekend, one day after Phoenix, Arizona, faced its hottest day on record—119 °Fahrenheit—winds brought a fire burning to the northwest of the city down on the firefighters trying to stop it, killing 19.

The fire, which had started on Friday, says the Associated Press, took a deadly turn Sunday, overtaking the 19 firefighters.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that the 19 firefighters were a part of the city’s fire department. The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona.

“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 … 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.””

The 19 firefighters killed were part of a much larger team combating the blaze that has now engulfed at least 2,000 acres.

The tragedy, says USA Today, was “the worst wildland firefighting tragedy in U.S. history since 25 were killed in the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles in 1933” and the worst ever in Arizona history.

That Griffith Park fire, says the Conference of California Historical Societies, killed 25 of an estimated 3,000 amateur firefighters who were struggling to contain a 40-acre fire. The team was mostly comprised of those working on various construction projects at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park:

At 2:10 p.m., Griffith Park Golf Professional Bobby Ross said he and several companions spotted smoke arising from a nearby hill as they stood at the first tee. The smoke was about 150 yards from the golf clubhouse and only 80 feet or so from a crew working just above what was then the main highway through the park. The fire continued to spread despite the efforts of the men to control the spread of the flames.

By now, the Los Angeles City Fire Department had arrived. Fire Chief Ralph Scott said his men found an estimated 3000 workers in a 40-acre fire area that included Mineral Wells Canyon. Around 3 p.m., the wind — which had been blowing gently and steadily down the canyons from the northwest — shifted. The fire advanced on the workers quickly, taking them by surprise.

Men scrambled madly up the canyon wall, trying to outrun the advancing flames. Workers watching from the new road above heard a particularly grisly transcript of the proceedings. “You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams,” one man said. “The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence — then you would hear another scream. It was all over inside of seven minutes.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

It’s About to Get Dangerously Hot in the Southwest
Colorado Wildfires Are So Big They Can Be Seen From Space

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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