Investigators to examine why Ariz. blaze killed 19

July 3, 2013 - 9:34 AM
Firefighters Killed

Hotshot firefighter Brendan McDonough attends a candlelight vigil in Prescott, Ariz. on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. McDonough was the sole survivor of the 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew after an out-of-control blaze killed the 19 on Sunday near Yarnell, Ariz. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Shortly before flames engulfed his comrades, the Hotshot firefighters' lookout radioed his team that the blaze had shifted direction with the wind and that he was fleeing for safety.

The harrowing experience of the elite crew's lone survivor was detailed Tuesday by a Prescott fire official, who also defended his department's actions in the tragedy that killed 19 firefighters.

The deaths raised questions over whether the crew should have been pulled out much earlier and if standard precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions. Investigators who arrived from around the U.S. will examine what caused the nation's biggest loss of firefighters since 9/11.

Violent wind gusts Sunday turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the tiny town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team, who had long proved they were willing to work in the hottest parts of blazes.

Brendan McDonough was assigned to give a "heads-up on the hillside" for the team on that fateful afternoon. He notified the crew of the changing conditions before leaving his post, said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman who relayed McDonough's story at an afternoon news conference.

"He did exactly what he was supposed to," said Ward, who implored the media to respect McDonough's privacy and to "leave him alone."

Ward did not address how the 19 others responded after McDonough's warning or how much time they had to act.

"He's trying to deal with the same things that we're all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that's compounded being there on the scene," Ward said.

The surviving crew member joined the families of the victims at a memorial service in Prescott. More than 3,000 people gathered at a high school football stadium to mourn and remember the fallen during service punctuated by repeated moments of silence.

After one moment of silence, 19 purple balloons - one for each of the fallen firefighters - were released into the air.

McDonough and victims' immediate family members sat in a special seating area that was roped off and security escorted them from the stadium when the event ended.

The service marked the first opportunity for many in the Prescott community to gather together since 19 of the men fighting a fire in nearby Yarnell died in the line of duty.

Official standards say fire crews battling a wildfire should identify escape routes and safe zones and that crews should pay attention to weather forecasts and post lookouts.

The U.S. Forest Service adopted the guidelines after 14 firefighters died in 1994 on Colorado's Storm King Mountain. Investigators uncovered numerous errors in how that blaze was fought.

"The reforms after Storm King were collectively intended to prevent that from happening again, which was mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew," said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado.

In the Storm King tragedy, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging, creating 100-foot tongues of flame. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.

"There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting," he said.

The Arizona fire was "still burning very hot" Tuesday even though there were not a lot of active flames.

Nearly 600 firefighters were battling the mountain blaze and an 8 percent containment figure announced by officials brought news of the first sign of progress against the deadly blaze.

Since Sunday, containment had stood at zero percent.

The fire has burned about 13 square miles. Yavapai County authorities said about 200 homes and other structures were destroyed in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. Hundreds were evacuated.

Fire Cmdr. Clay Templin urged residents to heed evacuation orders, saying "in these extraordinary conditions, we don't want to have another tragedy in Arizona."

Complicating efforts were the "exceptionally" dry conditions from drought.

The Hotshot team from Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chain saws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel.

But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.

Weather reports from around the time of the firefighter deaths show how volatile the wind became. At 4 p.m., the wind was blowing out of the southwest, but one hour later, it had switched to the exact opposite direction and dramatically increased in speed. It was gusting at 22 mph at 4 p.m. but was at 41 mph by 5 p.m.

"What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back and trapped them," said Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo.

Retired smoke jumper Art Morrison, a spokesman for the Arizona State Forestry Division, said it's essentially a judgment call in picking a safe haven to escape to if the flames suddenly blow toward crews and they have to flee for their lives.

"Whatever they used as a safety zone just didn't work," he said of the Prescott team.

Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said it's too early to say if the crew or those managing the fire made mistakes.

"This just might have been a weather anomaly that nobody saw coming that happened too quickly to respond to," Mangan said.

He said the crew members might have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.

"When you've got especially structures and residences involved, and you've got local resources, there's a fair amount of social and political pressure, some of it self-generated by the firefighters, who want to do a good job," Mangan said. "They don't want to see a community burn down. They want to get in there."

Earlier Tuesday, a team of nationwide fire officials drawn by Atlanta NIMO, or National Incident Management Organization, arrived in the area to find out exactly what went wrong.

They plan to make their way into the charred fire scene and issue a preliminary report in the coming days, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.

With the investigation just beginning, it's not clear what help water- or retardant-dropping aircraft could have provided for the doomed crew.

One contractor, Neptune Aviation Services, had three aerial tankers making drops on the fire earlier in the day. But at the time the firefighters died, the planes had been grounded because of treacherous conditions, said chief executive Ronald Hooper.

"It wasn't safe for them to be in the air at that time," Hooper said. There were "severe winds, erratic winds and thunderstorms in the area."

However, government dispatch logs show at least two other planes were flying over the fire at the time, one large tanker and one small one. There was also at least one firefighting helicopter in the air early Sunday afternoon.

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Associated Press writers Bob Christie in Phoenix, Brian Skoloff in Yarnell, Felicia Fonseca and Hannah Dreier in in Prescott, and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.