PRESCOTT, ARIZ. — Trapped by a wildfire that exploded tenfold in a matter of hours, a crack team of firefighting “Hotshots” broke out their portable emergency shelters and rushed to climb into the foil-lined, heat-resistant bags before the flames swept over them.
By the time the blaze had passed, 19 men lay dead in the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based at Prescott, authorities said Monday as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain in the town of Yarnell. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.
The deaths plunged the two small towns into mourning as the wildfire continued to threaten one of them.
The lightning-sparked fire destroyed about 50 homes and threatened 250 others in and around Yarnell, a town of 700 people in the mountains about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Department said.
About 200 more firefighters joined the battle Monday, bringing the total to 400. Among them were several other Hotshot teams, elite groups of firefighters sent in from around the country.
Brian Klimowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Flagstaff, said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.
The Hotshot 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.
Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said all 19 victims had deployed their emergency shelters as they were trained to do. When there is no way out, firefighters are supposed to step into them, lie face down on the ground and pull the fire-resistant fabric completely over themselves.
“It’ll protect you, but only for a short amount of time. If the fire quickly burns over you, you’ll probably survive that,” said Prescott Fire Capt. Jeff Knotek.
But “if it burns intensely for any amount of time while you’re in that thing, there’s nothing that’s going to save you from that.”
In addition to the flames, downed power lines and exploding propane tanks continued to threaten what was left of the town, said fire information officer Steve Skurja.
Arizona is in the midst of a historic drought that has left large parts of the state highly flammable.
A makeshift memorial of flower bouquets and American flags formed at the Prescott fire station where the crew was based.
Adam Higgins, left, and his brother Noah place flowers at a makeshift memorial at the fire station Monday, July 1, 2013, in Prescott, Ariz., where an elite team of firefighters was based. Nineteen of the 20 members of the team were killed Sunday when a wildfire suddenly swept toward them in Yarnell, Ariz.×