It was a last-ditch effort, Arizona firefighters say, the thing you do to save your life.
As ragged flames swept toward them, 19 wildfire specialists known as hotshots sent word that they were taking refuge in portable shelters -- burrowing under aluminum foil shrouds designed to withstand heat and preserve a pocket of breathable air near the ground.
Then silence marked the worst loss of U.S. emergency workers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We do not know what caused this,” said Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department, the home of the crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. “It had to be a situation where everything that could possibly go wrong, did go wrong. It happened very suddenly.”
The blaze in the rugged juniper chaparral west of Yarnell, Arizona, covered about 2,000 acres on June 30. It was modest as wildfires go, especially for the hotshots, who are trained to outsmart the flames and robust enough to hike for miles packing chainsaws and heavy gear, day after day, to create firebreaks. Their average age was 27.
“It’s a young man’s game,” said Dan Fraijo, Prescott’s fire chief. “They were dedicated, hard-working people who took their jobs very seriously.”
They were caught as storm winds rose and shifted, driving a blaze that grew to more than 8,300 acres yesterday. Flames consumed an estimated 200 homes in Yarnell, whose approximately 700 people live some 85 miles (140 kilometers) northwest of Phoenix. Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, declared a state of emergency for what she called the deadliest conflagration in Arizona history.
“We can never fully repay the sacrifice made by your loved ones,” Brewer said at a news briefing in Prescott, about 34 miles northeast of Yarnell.
Hundreds of people gathered in the gymnasium of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott campus late yesterday. Some embraced the dozens of firefighters who were applauded as they went to their bleacher seats. Outside, 19 small American flags on poles had been poked into the grass along a walkway.
So many people came that at least 500 were turned away to comply with fire codes, said Max Sandoval, a school spokesman.
“We’re gathered here today because we’re overwhelmed with grief and we don’t know what to do except to come together,” said U.S. Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a northern Arizona Democrat. She described herself as “a cousin by marriage” of one of the fallen firefighters.
Don Devendorff, a Prescott fire official, brought many in the crowd to tears when he talked about the young men who had died. He’d met their families at a picnic about a month ago, and been reunited with them by tragedy.
“Those families lost,” he said. “The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona lost. These were the best.”
Prescott, bounded entirely by forests, was the first U.S. city with a hotshot crew, Fraijo said. The hotshot crew, assembled in 2002, is trained to penetrate wildfires by helicopter or on the ground and thin trees, build barriers and spread water or chemical suppressants to block advancing flames.
“If there’s a fire in the forest, it’ll end up in the city,” Ward said in an interview. “If we have a fire in the city, it will end up in the forest.”
The so-called Yarnell Hill fire started from a lightning strike June 28, Fraijo said. He said the circumstances of the deaths were under investigation. One member of the crew, who had been on an assignment apart from the others, survived.
Ken Bennett, the Arizona secretary of state and formerly of Prescott, said his family attended services June 30 at a Mormon congregation with the wife of one of the hotshot crew.
“She was telling my family he was out at the Yarnell fire,” Bennett said by telephone. “She said she was worried but he always came home. Eight hours later we learned this time, he didn’t. We are just heartbroken.”
About 55 displaced Yarnell residents spent the night at Red Cross shelters at Wickenburg High School, about 25 miles south of town, and Yavapai College in Prescott, Trudy Thompson Rice, a Red Cross spokeswoman, said in an interview. Most Yarnell residents had chosen to stay with friends or family, she said.
Debra Denison, 61, wasn’t sure if her residence of six years, a blue-and-white mobile home surrounded by wooden decks, had survived. She had spotted the fire glowing red in the mountains on June 28 and saw it retreat the next day, only to return two days later. She was among seven people who crammed their belongings into two small cars and fled that afternoon.
“It was a wall of solid black,” she said, recalling the scene from the rearview mirror of her Ford Escort. She spent the night on a green cot at the high school.
“The hardest part is knowing that all those boys died while trying to protect our homes,” Denison said as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “And the not knowing. We don’t know if we have a place to go back to.”
The Prescott crew in 2012 logged 108 days fighting wildfires across the U.S., according to the city’s budget. Members had been working in New Mexico and returned to Arizona to fight a fire in the Granite Mountain Recreation Area.
The dead represented 20 percent of Prescott’s fire-fighting force, said Pete Wertheim, a city spokesman.
It was the third-deadliest loss of U.S. emergency personnel in a wildfire, according to the Quincy, Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit education and research group.
About 100 years ago, 86 firefighters died in the Devil’s Broom wildfire in Silverton, Idaho, in 1910. Two decades later, 29 perished in Griffith Park, California, in 1933.
The U.S. suffered its greatest loss of firefighter lives in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, when 340 died responding to the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.
Federal authorities are assisting and will remain in contact with state and local counterparts to provide the support they need, President Barack Obama said yesterday in a statement.
“They were heroes -- highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet,” Obama said.