Storm forecasts cloud progress against deadly Arizona wildfire

by Reuters
Thursday, 4 July 2013 01:00 GMT

(Updates with possibilities of more victims) By Tim Gaynor PRESCOTT, Ariz., July 3 (Reuters) - Firefighters on Wednesday tried to douse a smoldering Arizona blaze that killed 19 of their comrades in the deadliest U.S. wildfire tragedy in 80 years and officials said they feared more bodies could be discovered during mop-up operations. Strong, erratic winds that earlier had whipped the so-called Yarnell Hills fire into a deadly frenzy abated for a second day, helping crews make headway in subduing the flames, officials for the firefighting command team told Reuters. By Wednesday morning, a force of nearly 600 firefighters had managed to achieve their first measure of solid enclosure around the fire's perimeter, estimated at 8 percent, they said. "We've got containment, it's limited containment, but they feel very good about that," incident command spokesman Dennis Godfrey said. "There is a sense of confidence." Meanwhile, officials said they could not rule out the possibility that more people had died in the fire, possibly residents who had refused to evacuate as flames approached. "This fire moved approximately four miles in 20 minutes," Yavapai County Sheriff Chief Deputy John Russell told Reuters. "We had already started evacuating everyone ... and we experienced people who were not going to leave." "When we say we have a concern, it's because someone looks at you in the eye and says 'I'm not leaving, this is my home, I'm going to protect it,' so we go to the next one," he said. Russell said that search would begin in the next few days, after the area was secured by utility crews. "Over the next week, we are going to be going through the properties affected by this fire, just looking for victims. We don't have information that there are any, but it's something that we are concerned about," Russell said. STORM FORECAST Officials cautioned that plenty of dense, drought-parched scrub oak and chaparral was left unburned on the ground, providing ample fuel for creeping embers and hot spots to reignite. And the likelihood of heavy, late-afternoon thunderstorms remained in the region's weather forecasts, posing another wild card in firefighting efforts. Powerful wind bursts and lightning unleashed by such storms could quickly set off a renewed firestorm, officials said. Gale-force winds from a thunderstorm cell that moved through the area on Sunday are believed to have sparked the blaze, fanning flames that abruptly changed course and overwhelmed a group of firefighters before they could take cover. The deaths of the 19 men, members of a specially trained outfit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildland blaze since at least 25 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, records show. A 20th member of the team who was acting as lookout and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew on higher ground, survived unhurt. More than 2,000 people gathered at a high school in Prescott, Arizona, the nearby hometown of the fallen hotshot squad, on Tuesday evening to offer prayers. The blaze has blackened some 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) of rugged, brush-covered hillsides and ravines since it erupted on Friday near the tiny town of Yarnell, about 80 miles (130 km) northwest of Phoenix. Authorities have estimated that 50 to 200 structures, most of them homes, have been destroyed in and around Yarnell, but more precise property loss figures were not yet available. From the air on Monday evening, extensive fire damage was visible in the western outskirts of Yarnell but the center of town looked relatively untouched. Yarnell and the adjacent community of Peeples Valley, which together are home to roughly 1,000 people, remained evacuated. Fire incident commander Clay Templin told displaced residents at a community meeting on Tuesday that evacuees would probably not be allowed to return to their homes before Saturday. Full containment of the fire is not expected for at least another nine days, officials said. (Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Stacey Joyce)

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