A Facebook page has been created in memory of the fallen firefighters and included a photo showing 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Arizona forestry officials confirmed Sunday night that 19 firefighters have died in the Yarnell Hill Fire that has ripped through half of the town, sent residents to Prescott for safety and given the state its biggest ever wildfire firefighter tragedy.
“It’s a dark day,” said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.
Reichling said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of those found were inside a shelter, which is typically used as a last resort to withstand the fire as it blows over. Some of the crew members were found outside the shelters.
Officials said 18 of the deceased weremembers of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team. It’s unknown what fire crew the 19th firefighter belonged to. The firefighters are part of a team that is typically sent in first to help cut off the fire, Reichling said.
“They were up there doing what they normally do,” he said.
At Mile High Middle School, dozens of cars filled the parking lot as family and friends of the firefighters were gathered. There, they received official confirmation of the firefighters’ deaths.
Through the night, people slowly filed out of the middle school, holding one another and looking ashen.
Juliann Ashcraft said she found out her firefighter husband, Andrew, was among the dead by watching the news with her four children.
“They died heroes,” she said, crying and wiping tears away from her eyes. “And we’ll miss them. We love them.”
Gov. Jan Brewer offered her condolences to the families of the fallen in a statement late Sunday.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters,” the statement said. “It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred. When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all.”
Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, whose family has deep roots in the area, heard via text messages from from his sister and mother around 9:15 p.m. that a family friend was among those lost. Bennett declined to provide the name of the firefighter.
“They have four little kids and my mother, who lives up there, just saw his wife at church this morning with the four little ones,” Bennett said. “He was out on the fire. He didn’t make it back. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Bennett said his family is awaiting word on the names of other fallen firefighters.
“My two sons … played varsity soccer at Prescott high School and several of their teammates went onto one of the hotshot crews in the area,” he said, adding they are not sure if they were on the Prescott hot shot crew or the Granite Mountain hotshot crew. “They’ve got four or five friends who went onto these hot-shot crews. Our hearts are broken for the families that probably have already gotten the worst news ever. We just don’t know who it’s going to be — but I do know it’s going to be the friends of my boys.”
The fire is currently burning with zero containment and has grown well past 2,000 acres.
Chuck and Ninabill Overmyer said they lost their two-story Tudor-style house in a community just southwest of Yarnell. They had bought the home seven years ago on the Fourth of July, for their seventh anniversary.
On Sunday afternoon, Ninabill decided to take a nap around 1:30 p.m.
“The next thing I know, he’s bouncing me off the couch telling me we’re being evacuated,” she said.
Chuck frantically tried to rescue their hot rod and three classic cars by preparing to tow them out. He was only able to hook up the hot rod before the fire had traveled from 300 yards to only about 40 feet away.
“There were embers hitting us on the head,” Ninabill said. She told him they needed to leave right then.
“We went through the flames to get out,” Chuck said, estimating that if they had waited minutes more, they would have died. The smoke was so thick that they could not see the front of the car, they said.
“I have never felt anything that hot in my entire life,” Ninabill said. “The wind was blowing so hard, it was truly a firestorm.”
Rancher John Hays, 85, lives in the heart of Peeple’s Valley. He said the fire is burning the edge of his property line, but as of 9:30 p.m., it was burning only brush.
“You can’t believe the fierce winds we’re having and how dry it is — I’ve never seen it so erratic — the fire turns back and forth” Hays said. “The horror is that people have died trying to put it out. It’s heartbreaking. It’s tragic.”
Annie Gaines, 61, was certain she lost her home in Yarnell, where she lived for eight years. Gaines and her daughter, Neatie, arrived at the Red Cross shelter at Yavapai Community College with only their Chevrolet van, two dogs and a safe with their birth certificates.
Earlier Sunday, they had known there was a fire burning but had heard that it wasn’t going to hit Yarnell. At 3 p.m., Annie Gaines noticed the smoke was getting bad. An hour later, the fire department arrived telling them they may have to evacuate. Moments later, a fire truck came down their road, blaring its horn.
“It looked like hell coming over that ridge,” Annie Gaines said. “There was a towering inferno.”
Annie said she was frustrated with the information trickling in, but news of the firefighters’ deaths hit hard.
“It makes me sick,” she said. “They’re up there and they were just trying to save stuff. Nothing up that canyon was worth their lives. I feel sort of responsible.”
Reichling said the fire is quickly reaching “Type 1” status — the most critical level that triggers immediate resources from the federal government — and that federal authorities will be brought in to help and state officials will begin investigating the deaths. Reichling expects the manpower dedicated to the fire to reach about 400 people as federal help arrives.
Fire officials Sunday afternoon ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and parts of Peeples Valley as a fast-moving, lightning-caused fire that charred up to 2,000 acres reached Yarnell, Reichling said, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman. Between 200 and 250 structures have burned.
The Wickenburg Community Hospital has been treating residents with minor injuries and those who have suffered smoke inhalation, said Roxie Glover, director of community relations at the hospital.
Glover said the emergency room started filling up about 6:30 and “it’s been pretty steady ever since.”
Those with more serious injuries are being transported to other medical centers.
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Glover said, noting the hospital had fielded phone calls from families wondering if their family member was among the firefighters lost.
People seeking information about family members should call the Red Cross hotline: 800-842-7349. Those looking for shelter should call: 800-733-2767.
The wind-whipped blaze also prompted officials to shut 25 miles of State Route 89 between Congress and Kirkland, but residents of the hundreds of evacuated homes could still travel the estimated 30 miles to a shelter in Prescott, Reichling said.
The Yarnell Hill Fire, ignited at about 5:30 p.m. Friday, was moving north and east at the rate of about half a mile per hour, fire officials said.
As about 250 firefighters fought to keep the blaze at bay Sunday, officials evacuated three subdivisions outside Yarnell, officials said.