Local firefighters on alert for Arizona

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Covington County is home to a group of specialized firefighters like the 19 who died Sunday in an Arizona wildfire, and thankfully, no one local was in the group who perished in what is being called the deadliest blaze in state history.

Men and women headquartered in the Andalusia office of the Alabama Forestry Commission and the U.S. Forest Service work as part of the unit during all times of natural disaster.

Travis Chesser with AFC is among that group, and he said firefighters were put on alert to respond to the blaze last week.

“Right now, we don’t have anyone out there,” Chesser said. “They did send out an email to get on the list to go to Arizona, but no one from here signed up. When you go, you go for three weeks, and we respond to all sorts of natural disasters, not just fires.”

Sunday’s disaster in Arizona marks the highest death toll among firefighters from a U.S. wildland blaze since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The precise circumstances surrounding Sunday’s deaths of all but one of a 20-member team remained unclear a day after they perished while battling a blaze that has destroyed scores of homes and forced the evacuation of two towns. But fire officials said the young men fell victim to a volatile mix of erratic winds gusting to gale-force intensity, low humidity, a sweltering heat wave, and thick, drought-parched brush that had not burned in some 40 years.

The doomed firefighters had managed to deploy their personal fire shelters – tent-like safety devices designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air – in a last-ditch effort to survive that ultimately proved futile, officials said.

The blaze was ignited by lightning on Friday near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, and by Monday, was still raging unchecked after scorching some 8,400 acres of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley. The two towns are southwest of Prescott and home to roughly 1,000 people.

A Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office spokesman said on Sunday at least 200 structures had been destroyed, most of them in Yarnell, a community consisting largely of retirees. Fire officials said most of the buildings lost were homes.

The so-called Yarnell Hills blaze was one of dozens of wildfires in several western U.S. states in recent weeks. Experts have said the current fire season could be one of the worst on record.