Prescott — More than 1 000 people gathered in a deeply emotional memorial on Monday evening in the Arizona mountain town of Prescott to mourn the deaths of the 19 elite firefighters killed on Sunday.
It was the nation's deadliest day for fire crews since 11 September 2001.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo spoke in a shaky voice at the memorial as he described throwing a picnic a month ago for the department's new recruits and meeting their families.
"About five hours ago, I met those same families at an auditorium," he said. "Those families lost. The Prescott Fire Department lost. The city of Prescott lost. The state of Arizona and the nation lost," he said before receiving a standing ovation as he left the podium.
For the 19 killed, violent wind gusts turned a lightning-caused forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.
In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters — members of a highly skilled Arizona-based Hotshot crew — had unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant shelters and rushed to cover themselves on the ground. But the success of the shelters depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging fire.
Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.
The blaze grew from 80 hectares to about 800 hectares in a matter of hours, and Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo said the wind and fire made it impossible for the firefighters to flee around 15:00 on Sunday.
"The winds were coming from the southeast, blowing to the west, away from Yarnell and populated areas. Then the wind started to blow in, the wind kicked up to 80km/h gusts and it blew east, south, west - every which way," he said. "What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back, and trapped them."
Authorities are investigating to figure out what exactly went wrong after the wind suddenly changed direction. Mary Rasmussen, a spokesperson for the Southwest incident team, said Atlanta Nimo - National Incident Management Organisation will be the lead in the probe and will aim to put out a report in the coming days with preliminary information.
The multi-agency group of investigators arrived on Monday and was being briefed in Phoenix. Judith Downing, a spokesperson for the taskforce, said they would go to the fire scene on Tuesday.
Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, and it appears the fire's erratic nature simply overwhelmed them.
The Hotshot team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to Yarnell, entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees.
In a heartbreaking sight, a long line of vans from a coroner's office carried the bodies of the 19 firefighters on Monday from Yarnell to Phoenix for autopsies, as the fire burned out of control. It was 0% contained and had burned 3 400 hectares as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperature soaring.
Yavapai County said an estimated 200 homes and other structures burned in Yarnell and hundreds of people have been evacuated.
About 200 firefighters arrived to the scorching mountains, doubling the number of firefighters battling the blaze, ignited by lightning. Many of them also were part of Hotshot crews.
In addition to the flames, downed power lines and exploding propane tanks continued to threaten what was left of the town, said fire information officer Steve Skurja. A light rain fell over the area but did little in helping crews gain the upper hand fire.
Arizona's governor called Sunday "as dark a day as I can remember" and ordered flags flown at half-staff.
"I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me. I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today," said Governor Jan Brewer, her voice catching several times as she addressed reporters and residents at Prescott High School in the town of 40 000.