PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Armed with chainsaws and axes, the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been carving a fire break in a rocky area of plunging canyons when a thunderstorm swept overhead. Northbound winds shifted direction abruptly, officials said, likely pushing the flames toward the men who died trying to escape them.
Exactly how it happened — the interplay of choice and chance that led to one of the largest death-tolls in the history of fighting wildfires — remained a puzzle Monday, a day after 19 firefighters died in the blaze about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
“It had to be a perfect storm,” said Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward. He said the firefighters were “very cautious” and “very conservative,” deepening the mystery of what went wrong.
The fire, apparently sparked by lightning Friday and still out of control late Monday, has spread to more than 8,400 acres and destroyed an estimated 200 buildings around the tiny mountain town of Yarnell, where residents have fled to shelters. Some 280 firefighters from across the West were struggling to contain it.
The lost crewmembers were mostly men in their 20s, trained to gauge the wind and maintain escape routes.
They were working west of Highway 89 between Yarnell and Peeples Valley when they died.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, who oversaw the crew, said the men “were in the position of protecting property when something tragic took place, that maybe Mother Nature will only be able to explain.”
“Whatever may have happened,” Fraijo said, “we will be able to take that terrible tragedy and build on that.”
Some of the people who fled the fire had found shelter Monday at a Red Cross station on the grounds of a college campus in Prescott. Among them were Bill and Lynette Carter, who had been jolted awake Monday morning in their Peeples Valley mobile home by law officers yelling evacuation orders through their bullhorns.
The Carters had saved up for their home and liked the quiet of the area, an escape from “the rat race of the city,” said Bill, 41, a disabled truck driver. The couple said they live paycheck to paycheck, and feared losing everything.
“We worked hard to get into that place, and to lose it — that’s nuts,” said Lynette, 38, who works at a supermarket. “All you can do is be patient.”
They paced the campus anxiously. “Every once in a while, we try to go in there and lay down,” she said. “It just doesn’t work.”
Dianna Stitt, 47, sat on a bench under a shade tree on the campus, trying to escape the heat. She and her family had fled their single-wide mobile home in Yarnell, grabbing everything they could in just 15 minutes as smoke approached.
“The smoke was so intense,” Stitt said.
“I almost said we were going to hang it out,” said her partner, Thomas Barton, 55. “But then I saw the flames over the hill, and I said, ‘Nope. We’ve got to get out.’”
Their home had a long driveway and big yard, and was surrounded by dense trees. They couldn’t be sure, but they had heard from a neighbor that the flames had spared their home.
“It takes a big weight off my shoulders,” Barton said. “We thought it had burned down, the way the fire was coming down the hill.”
They liked Yarnell because it was placid, a town that felt like Mayberry, Barton said. At last count, the population was 649, with a median age of 61. Many of the businesses that burned were quaint mom-and-pop operations.
“We got a grocery store, antiques stores, a restaurant,” he said. “We had a post office; it burnt down, I heard. We used to have a bank but they shut it down.”
The fire killed all but one of the Granite Mountain crew, which worked separately from the firefighters who protect the city of Prescott. Fraijo, the Prescott chief, said the survivor happened to be moving equipment to a different area of the blaze.
Protocol requires that crews establish a safety zone with a clearing large enough to escape through, said Art Morrison, a spokesman with the Arizona State Forestry Division. When the firefighters couldn’t flee, they climbed inside their fire shelters, a last chance at survival.
“Obviously it wasn’t a big enough open field,” Morrison said. “Obviously, wherever they deployed their shelters, they were too close to heavy fuels so they got overrun.”
Steve Skurja, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, said the bodies have been recovered, and an investigation into the deaths had been launched.
“Around here, the hotshots (is) a way into the fire department, so it’s young guys with young kids. That’s what makes it hurt. You went to school with some of those guys,” said the Rev. Will Vallely, 34, pastor at The Ridge church.
“There’s probably no greater burden for a fire chief to deal with than talking to families who have lost their loved ones,” an emotional Fraijo told reporters late Sunday night. “They’re very strong … but we’re going through an incredible period of grief.
“I’ve probably gotten 150 texts from people I don’t even recognize their names, expressing condolences, some from other countries,” Fraijo said. “The outcry for help has been incredible.”
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state disaster on Monday.
“I can’t even imagine how the families and friends who knew these individuals feel,” Brewer said. “It’s just unbearable. … For now, as we mourn, consider this: The Yarnell (fire) claimed the lives of more first responders than any single disaster since 9/11.”