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U.S. firefighters pause to reflect on job's dangers

Published: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 3:17 p.m. CDT

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PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters battling a blaze outside the mountain town of Yarnell came off the line Wednesday to salute a procession of towed fire vehicles left by 19 elite Hotshot crew members killed in the line of duty.

The firefighters and law enforcement gathered along a highway to honor the Prescott-based unit deployed last weekend. One of the vehicles held backpacks, water jugs and coolers. Another was emblazoned with the group's motto, in Latin: "To be, rather than to seem."

Fire crews across the U.S. planned to also pause throughout the day to remember the Granite Mountain Hotshots and recognize the dangers firefighters face, said Jim Whittington, spokesman for Southwest Incident Command Team.

"One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is we don't forget," he said, adding that crews pay tribute every year to those who have died in the nation's worst firefighting disasters.

"And we will remember this one," he said, his voice shaking. "It's tough."

In the biggest loss of U.S. firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts on Sunday turned what was believed to be a manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team of Hotshots, most of them in the prime of their lives.

The last investigators of the nine-member team charged with finding out what went wrong arrived Wednesday and were being briefed. The investigation will include examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports. They'll also surely talk to the sole survivor of the blaze, the lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions and heading straight for them.

Nearly 600 firefighters are fighting the blaze, which has burned about 13 square miles and destroyed an estimated 50 homes in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. Hundreds were evacuated and crews erected perimeters around the homes.

Fire spokeswoman Paige Rockett said the forecast calls for lighter wind Wednesday but noted that drought conditions still make it a dangerous situation. The hope is to allow residents back into their homes over the weekend and contain the fire by July 12. It remained 8 percent contained Wednesday.

Only one member of the crew, identified Tuesday as 21-year-old lookout Brendan McDonough, survived. After radioing others about the growing danger, McDonough made it to safety, while the rest were overtaken by the blaze.

"He did exactly what he was supposed to," said Wade Ward, who implored the media to respect McDonough's privacy as he and the families mourn. "He's trying to deal with the same things that we're all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that's compounded being there on the scene."

McDonough grieved with families of the fallen firefighters Tuesday evening at a public memorial service in Prescott. More than 3,000 people gathered at a high school football stadium to remember the 19 men during a service punctuated by repeated moments of silence amid emotional remarks from pastors and officials.

"This has brought us to our knees but at some point there will be another house fire or wildfire," said Ralph Lucas, a battalion chief for the Prescott Fire Department.

After one moment of silence, 19 purple balloons — one for each of the fallen firefighters — were released into the air.

McDonough and victims' families sat in a special seating area in the stadium that was roped off. He was not accessible to reporters and security escorted him and the others out when the event ended.

The team of investigators, comprised of forest managers and safety experts, was expected to release a preliminary report in days.

The investigation's ultimate goal: Prevent a similar tragedy from happening.

"We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible," Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said in a statement.

Safety standards for wildland firefighters were toughened nearly 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on Colorado's Storm King Mountain, and investigators found a number of errors in the way the blaze was fought.

In what fire authorities said was an eerily similar situation to the Arizona blaze, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging on Storm King in Colorado, creating 100-foot flames. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.

Essentially, it was "mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew," said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado-Denver.

"There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting," he said.

Under the toughened policies, no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather and post lookouts.

Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.

Dick Mangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service safety official and consultant, said the crew members might have taken too many risks because they were on familiar ground and were trying to protect a community they knew well.

"They don't want to see a community burn down," Mangan said.

With the investigation just beginning, it's not clear what help water- or retardant-dropping aircraft could have provided.

Nine such planes worked on the fire at some point Sunday, said Tom Harbour, the Forest Service's director of Fire & Aviation Management program. At least one helicopter was also in the air.

Harbour emphasized that mountainous terrain, turbulent weather and the intensity of a fire can limit what aircraft can do to help, though he declined to discuss specifics of what happened to the doomed Hotshots.

___

Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Bob Christie in Phoenix, Brian Skoloff in Yarnell, Hannah Dreier and Felicia Fonseca in Prescott, and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.

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