Federal Investigators Probe Ariz. Fire That Killed 19 Hotshots
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There were two very different scenes in Arizona yesterday - just 30 miles apart. From the air and from the ground, fire crews were still in a chaotic battle against the blaze that has become known as the Yarnell Hill Fire. And just a short drive away, in the city of Prescott, a somber scene, as a community mourned the loss of 19 firefighters who died fighting that fire over the weekend.
Last night, several thousand people gathered at a football stadium for a vigil. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Prescott.
JOHN DICKERSON: Tonight we're here to honor heroes...
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A brilliant purple sunset last night on the Prescott High School football field, thousands of people had filed into the stands and out onto the field for a vigil commemorating the 19 Hotshot crew members who died Sunday on the Yarnell Hill Fire. The vigil was led by John Dickerson, who sought to console the families of the victims.
DICKERSON: We want you to know that we love you, and we are here to be supportive.
SIEGLER: In that crowd applauding was James Brennan, who knew several men on the crew.
JAMES BRENNAN: Yeah, it's tough. These local kids, they're so many of them that were lost at one time that, you know, everybody in the community is connected to them, or not far removed from it, so...
SIEGLER: The deaths have shocked this small city nestled in the wooded mountains north of Phoenix, where wildfires have long been a fact of life. The Yarnell Hill Fire is burning more than 30 miles south of here. But the elite Granite Mountain crew is local to Prescott and they were on the front lines Sunday. Many here are still struggling to process what happened and how everything could take such a tragic turn. So far, the details have been slow to come in.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If everybody could grab a seat, we're going to go ahead and get started. We apologize for...
SIEGLER: At a community meeting organized by the city yesterday, more was revealed about how the only surviving member of the crew managed to get out. Twenty-one-year old Brendan McDonough had been serving as lookout, standing on the side of a hill watching the wind, the fire's behavior and radioing down to the crew, alerting them about the conditions. Choking back tears, Wade Ward of the Prescott Fire Department continued the story from the podium.
WADE WARD: He also communicated to the crew the situational awareness, which was that the weather was changing rapidly and that was the reason that he was leaving, as well as the fire had changed directions.
SIEGLER: But that was the last communication anyone had with the other 19 on the crew.
SIEGLER: The audience erupted in applause when Ward urged the media not to contact McDonough. He's at home with his mother grieving. After the meeting, Ward said he couldn't provide any more details about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the other crew members. That's now up to federal investigators.
WARD: We have an accident. We have a wind shift that burned over 19 of our firefighters. I mean, there's nothing more to it.
SIEGLER: An interagency team of fire investigators began arriving here yesterday. They're expected to spend days, if not weeks, combing through every detail. They'll likely review whether the crew had an escape route, or whether the fire was just so intense and dangerous that no one could have gotten out alive when those winds shifted like they did.
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SIEGLER: Out on the fire yesterday, air and ground resources continued to pour in from around the region. Winds were again a factor, and choppers buzzed across the smoky skies to drop water on the flames, trying to keep the blaze from spreading. Fire managers are warning there's a good chance it could flare back up and make another dangerous run. Incident commander Clay Templin pleaded with hundreds of evacuees to keep patient.
CLAY TEMPLIN: I'm a native Arizonan. I get it that people want to stay in their homes, but in these extraordinary conditions, we don't want to have another tragedy in Arizona.
SIEGLER: The conditions are so extraordinary due to the drought, rising temperatures and the fact that natural wildfires have been suppressed in the Southwest for so long, there's a lot of fuel to burn. Authorities are still assessing the extent of the damage to homes and buildings in and around the town of Yarnell.
At a police road block, Linda Johnston said she was pretty sure her home was still standing. But all she could think about was the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
LINDA JOHNSTON: God, when you think of all the work they've done to help you, you know what I mean? Laying their life on the line like that. It's just the saddest thing in the world. You feel like you ought to do something, there's nothing you can do but pray.
SIEGLER: And there's a lot of that going on here. Besides last night's vigil, impromptu memorials, heartfelt signs and tributes are also popping up along sidewalks, fences and in front of fire stations around Prescott. All of this an offer of some comfort to the victim's loved ones. They'll soon be preparing for funerals and memorial services in the days ahead.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Prescott, Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.