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Arizona fire chief: 'We're devastated'

3:01 PM, Jul 1, 2013   |    comments
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PRESCOTT, Ariz. - The Yarnell Hill Fire claimed the lives of nearly every member of an elite firefighting squad with a solid reputation, a loss that shook the firefighting community to its core.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew perished in the blaze and said his fire department was in shock. He did not disclose names or many other details but said the other member of the crew survived because he was in a different location.

"Emotionally, we're devastated," Fraijo said at a Sunday night news conference. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet. I mean, right now, we're in crisis."

The Sunday incident is believed to be the deadliest firefighting toll in a wildfire since 1933, and the deadliest single event for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A Facebook page set up to remember the fallen firefighters already had attracted more than 200,000 "likes" as of Monday afternoon.

When asked if he could provide any update on the number of homes lost in Yarnell, Fraijo said his attention had been on more pressing matters all afternoon.

"Once we started getting notification of what happened, I lost all track of Yarnell," he said.

Fraijo said he would be able to provide more details about the firefighters who died at a 10 a.m. MST news conference Monday.

Hotshot crews typically are 20-member squads trained specifically for the wildland fire season and who sometimes travel around the country to battle blazes. The Prescott-based group was among the first to respond to the Doce Fire in June, according to the Prescott Daily Courier. The group previously had been fighting fires in New Mexico, the newspaper reported.

Families, friends, firefighters and police gathered Sunday night in the auditorium of Mile High Middle School here, where they were to be briefed about what happened and have the opportunity to meet with counselors. Fire trucks had pulled into the school parking lot and several others filled a side street next to the school.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who grew up on a ranch in the rural community of Snowflake, Ariz., told KPNX-TV, Phoenix, that he already had reached out to the White House to request any federal resources that aren't already being deployed.

"Growing up in a small town, like I did, too, you know people on those hotshot crews," Flake said. "My brother was on one of those a few years ago. This is tragic. It really is, anywhere, but in a small town where everybody knows everybody, this is going to hurt for a long time."

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who has deep roots in Prescott area, said Sunday that a family friend was among the fallen firefighters. He declined to name the family friend.

"My mother, who lives up there, just saw his wife at church this morning," Bennett said. "He was out on the fire. He didn't make it back. It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Bennett said his family is awaiting word on the names of other fallen firefighters.

The firefighter deaths drew written statements of condolence from other members of Arizona's Capitol Hill delegation.

• "My heart weeps for those who lost their lives and were affected by today's Yarnell Hill Fire," said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

• "This devastating loss is a reminder of the grave risks our firefighters take every day on our behalf in Arizona and in communities across this nation," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Their sacrifice will never be forgotten."

Contributing: J.J. Hensley, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Scott Craven, The Arizona Republic


Dan Nowicki, The Arizona Republic

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