The Northern Arizona town of Prescott is in mourning following the deaths on Sunday of 19 of the 20 men in its elite crew of 'Hotshot' fire-fighters, who were killed battling the nearby Yarnell Hill Fire. The town's fire Chief, Dan Fraijo, addressed an emotional crowd of more than 1,000 people during a memorial held on Monday evening at the local high school, marking the most deadly day for fire-fighters in the US since 9/11. “Those families lost,” Fraijo said, his voice unsteady. “The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost.”
Authorities said just one member of the Hotshot crew had survived, because he had gone to move the team's truck shortly before his colleagues were overtaken by the blaze. Fourteen of the 19 who died were in their 20s. Among the youngest of the victims was 21-year-old Kevin Woyjeck, whose father Joe has worked as a fire-fighter in Los Angeles County, California, for almost 30 years. LA County fire inspector Keith Mora told reporters on Monday that Woyjeck was a “great kid”, who “was working very hard to follow in his father's footsteps.”
The Hotshot crew's oldest member and its superintendent was 43-year-old Eric Marsh, originally from North Carolina, who began fighting fires as a student at Arizona State University. He settled in his adopted state to pursue a career in fire-fighting, even moving his parents cross-country to join him. Another of the victims, Billy Warneke, 25, was expecting his first child with his wife Roxanne. A former marine and Iraq veteran, Warneke had recently moved to Prescott, only joining the unit in April.
In recent weeks, the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been fighting wildfires elsewhere in their state and in neighbouring New Mexico. They were one of 110 Hotshot crews across the US, each of which are typically 20-strong, and specially trained to tackle deadly wildfires in some of the country's most isolated areas.
Investigators are working to determine how the men became trapped by the unpredictable blaze, after they lost contact with officials at around 4.30pm on Sunday. A National Weather Service spokesman said they may have been doomed by a sudden change in the wind's speed and direction at around that time, which caused the 200-acre fire to swell to 2,000 acres in just a few hours.
Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman Art Morrison said on Monday that the crew did not seem to have secured a sufficiently large site to which to escape if they were overtaken by the flames. “Obviously it wasn't a big enough open field,” Morrison said. “They were too close to heavy fuels, so they got overrun.”
Before their deaths, the men had all deployed their emergency shelters. Fraijo said the fire-resistant, one-man shelters are “an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions.” Though they can save lives in some circumstances, the shelters are said to be ineffective if they come into direct contact with fire.
The blaze that claimed the lives of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was sparked by a lightning strike last Friday, close to the small mountain town of Yarnell, around 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. At least 600 of the town's approximately 700 inhabitants have been forced to flee their homes. The fire still raged on Monday night, by which time it had burned well over 8,000 acres. Some 400 fire-fighting personnel arrived from across the US to tackle the continuing blaze, including members of 18 other Hotshot crews.