BY JUSTIN CHAN WITH AP REPORTING
On Friday, lightning sparked a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, the state’s capital. The fire turned deadly on Sunday, June 28, claiming the lives of 19 firefighters. Known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the firefighters were part of a 20-member fire crew from nearby Prescott, Arizona.
“We are heartbroken about what happened,” President Barack Obama said from Africa, where he is traveling with his family. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama called the firefighters “heroes” who “selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.”
The crew had recently fought fires in Prescott and New Mexico before they were called to battle the Yarnell Hill Fire. The blaze has now spread over more than 8,000 acres. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed. Residents were forced to evacuate, or leave, the area.
As of Monday afternoon, fire crews were still working to contain the blaze.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots were honored at the Prescott fire station with a homemade memorial that included flowers and American flags. One member of the fire crew escaped harm because he had left the area to move the team’s truck, authorities said.
“We’re very proud of them,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said of the firefighters at a news conference on Monday. Arizona governor Jan Brewer spoke next at the conference. She called the men “brave.” Throughout the state, flags will be flown at half-mast to honor the firefighters.
Wildfires spread easily during the summer, when the weather is hot and dry. They are common in Western states, including California, New Mexico, and Utah. In Colorado, lighting ignited a fire on June 5. Fueled by strong wind and dead trees, flames spread across 114 miles and affected several towns and tourist areas. At least 600 firefighters battled the blaze for several weeks before it was brought under control.
Last year, around 68,000 wildfires took place and affected more than 9 million acres of land, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Lightning fires cause an estimated 17,400 fires every year, and more than half of them occur outside, where trees, brush, and grass easily ignite, the agency’s research notes. In partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the group offers wildfire safety tips to help people stay out of danger.