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Winds to whip up Arizona wildfire

03 July 2013, 09:06

Prescott - Wind more powerful than the gusts that swept an Arizona wildfire over the weekend, killing 19 members of an elite firefighting crew, were expected to whip up the flames on Tuesday as crews work to corral the blaze feasting on tinder-dry vegetation.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Wallmann said powerful wind is forecast, with a worst-case scenario of 130km/h gusts. He also said possible weekend thunderstorms could complicate efforts, too.

"The winds are going to be a serious factor for us today," said fire behaviour analyst Stewart Turner.

Fire spokesperson Karen Takai said it remains unclear how many houses have burned, but crews were working to figure out the scope of the destruction. The current estimate is 50 homes lost.

"It is very difficult for the public out here right now. They're out of their homes, there's a lot of uncertainty for them," she said.

For the 19 firefighters 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 Hotshot crew - 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 80ha to about 800ha in a matter of hours, and Prescott City Councilor Len Scamardo said the wind and fire made it impossible for the firefighters to flee around 15:00 on Sunday.

Every which way

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

During a deeply emotional memorial Monday evening in Prescott, firefighters walked down the bleachers in a silent gymnasium full of mourners, their heavy work boots drumming a march on the wooden steps.

More than 1 000 people gathered in the gym on the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University campus as others throughout the state and beyond also mourned the deaths of the 19 Prescott-based firefighters killed on Sunday outside nearby Yarnell. The day marked the nation's deadliest for fire crews since 11 September 2001.

Authorities are investigating to figure out what exactly went wrong after the wind suddenly changed direction. Atlanta NIMO, or 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, said Mary Rasmussen, a spokesperson for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team.

The multi-agency group of investigators arrived on Monday and was being briefed in Phoenix. Judith Downing, a spokesperson for the task force, said they would go to the fire scene on Tuesday.

At last count, about 500 firefighters were on the scene, with more on the way. The fire has burned 3 400ha, or about 35 sq km, as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperature soaring.

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.

- AP

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