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In Arizona, a consuming grief, a capricious fire

Prescott honors 19 firefighters who died in blaze

Juliann Ashcraft (left) of Prescott, the wife of Andrew Ashcraft, who was killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire, and another mourner sat by a memorial for the fallen firefighters in front of Prescott Fire Station #7 on Monday.

David Wallace/ The Arizona Republic/ AP

Juliann Ashcraft (left) of Prescott, the wife of Andrew Ashcraft, who was killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire, and another mourner sat by a memorial for the fallen firefighters in front of Prescott Fire Station #7 on Monday.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — A long line of vans from a coroner’s office carried the bodies of 19 elite firefighters out of the tiny mountain town of Yarnell on Monday as the wind-driven wildfire that claimed the men’s lives burned out of control.

About 200 more firefighters arrived to the scorching mountains, doubling the number of firefighters battling the blaze that was ignited by lightning.

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Many of them were wildfire specialists like the 19 fatally trapped Sunday, a group of firefighters known as Hotshots called to face the nation’s fiercest wildfires.

With no way out, the Prescott-based crew did what they were trained to do: They unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant tarps and rushed to cover themselves. But that last, desperate line of defense could not save them.

The deaths of the Granite Mountain Hotshots marked the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years. Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.

Arizona’s governor called it ‘‘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,’’ 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.

President Obama called Brewer on Monday from Africa and reinforced his commitment to providing necessary federal support to battle the fire that spread to 13 square miles after destroying 50 homes. More than 200 homes were threatened in the town of 700 people.

Brewer said the blaze ‘‘exploded into a firestorm’’ that overran the crew.

Prescott City Councilman Len Scamardo said the wind changed directions and brought 40- to 50-mile-per-hour gusts that caused the firefighters to become trapped around 3 p.m. Sunday. The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.

Clay Templin, the southwest incident team leader, 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 as a heat wave across the Southwest sent temperatures into the triple digits.

Prescott’s fire chief, Dan Fraijo, said he feared the worst when he received a call Sunday afternoon from someone assigned to the fire.

‘‘All he said was, ‘We might have bad news. The entire Hotshot crew deployed their shelters,’ ’’ Fraijo said. ‘‘When we talk about deploying the shelters, that’s an automatic fear, absolutely. That’s a last-ditch effort to save yourself when you deploy your shelter.’’

Firefighters are supposed to step into the shelters, lie face down on the ground and pull the fire-resistant fabric completely over themselves. The shelter is designed to reflect heat and trap cool, breathable air inside for a few minutes while a wildfire burns over a person.

But its success depends on firefighters being in a cleared area, away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging inferno of heat and hot gases.

The glue holding the layers of the shelter together begins to come apart at about 500 degrees, well above the 300 degrees that would almost immediately kill a person. ‘‘It’ll protect you, but only for a short amount of time,’’ said Prescott Fire Captain Jeff Knotek.

The United States has 110 Hotshot crews, according to the US Forest Service website. They typically have about 20 members each and go through specialized training.

Many of those killed were graduates of Prescott High, including 28-year-old Clayton Whitted, who as a firefighter would work out on the same campus where he played football for the Prescott Badgers from 2000 to 2004.

The school’s football coach, Lou Beneitone, said Whitted was the type of athlete who ‘‘worked his fanny off.’’

‘‘He wasn’t a big kid, and many times in the game, he was overpowered by big men, and he still got after it,’’ Beneitone said.

He and Whitted had talked a few months ago about how this year’s fire season could be rough.

‘‘I shook his hand, gave him a hug, and said, ‘Be safe out there,’’’ Beneitone recalled. ‘‘He said, ‘I will, Coach.’’’

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