YARNELL, Ariz. — Gusty, hot winds blew an Arizona blaze out of control Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing 19 members of an elite fire crew in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.
The “hotshot” firefighters were forced to deploy their fire shelters — tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat — when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told The Associated Press.
The fire started Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. Officials ordered the evacuations of 50 homes in several communities, and later Sunday afternoon, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office expanded the order to include more residents in Yarnell, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo also said that 19 firefighters had been killed by the fire.
“The entire hot shot crew had been killed by the fire,” he said. He said that the firefighters had to deploy the emergency shelters when “something drastic happened.”
The crew killed in the blaze had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona. The unit was established in 2002.
The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., which killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.
Morrison said several homes in the community of Glenisle burned on Sunday. He said no other injuries or deaths have been reported from that area.
About 200 firefighters are fighting the wildfire, which has also forced the closure of parts of state Route 89. An additional 130 firefighters and more water- and retardant-dropping helicopters and aircraft are on their way.
Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, told The Arizona Republic they’re calling in federal help to fight the fire.
Roxie Glover, spokeswoman at Wickenburg Community Hospital, said that the hospital has been told to expect people with injuries.
The Red Cross has opened a shelter at Yavapai College in Prescott, the sheriff’s office said.
In another Arizona fire, a 2-acre blaze that started at a motorcycle salvage yard and spread to a trailer park has destroyed five mobile homes in the Gila County community of Rye, located more than 130 miles east of Yarnell.