Arizona wildfire evacuees hold breath as firefight hits 'pivotal day'

Arizona wildfire evacuees hold breath as firefight hits 'pivotal day'
Mourners attending a memorial service for 19 firefighters killed on Sunday raise their hands to acknowledge that they knew members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew that died. (David Wallace / Arizona Republic)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Officials say the battle against the fire that killed 19 firefighters faces a "pivotal day" Tuesday as crews build a cordon around the uncontained blaze, and homeowners and evacuees await word on their homes.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, which overran the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew on Sunday, also overran part of nearby Yarnell, but the fire may not have been as destructive as first thought.


The fire has not expanded since Monday morning, having burned about 8,400 acres -- a relatively small area compared with many massive Western wildfires, but still large enough to slip away from firefighters if they don't bring it under control soon, said Art Morrison, spokesman for the fire response.

Officials have begun to back off an early estimate of 200 structures lost as investigators prepared to survey Yarnell, population 649, Tuesday.

“Probably 50 [structures] would be the low end of the range, and it could be up to 200," Morrison said in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times. "It’s really hard to know."
Morrison noted that some homes were up in rugged hillsides and that downed power lines and explosive propane tanks had prevented officials from carefully evaluating the town.
The uncertainty had begun to wear on the nerves of some residents invited to community meetings in Prescott and Wickenburg on Tuesday.
"Hopefully, we evacuees will receive some actual news about the fire behavior, firefighting efforts and when we might possibly get to our homes and businesses," wrote one commenter on the fire response's official Facebook page. "The loss of life is horrific and we grieve for the fallen, but how about some real-time news for those who have lost their homes and all they had."
"There seems to be no info on our propertys if they exist or not," another commenter said.
That uncertainty was felt at an American Red Cross shelter at Wickenburg High School, where Dan Risk, 60, and Glenn Taylor, 72, recalled their escape from Yarnell.
The two men have no idea if their homes survived. Taylor said he's not holding out much hope. He's been short on information since arriving, only receiving trickles from friends as they walk inside the gym.
A man who owns a hardware store walked by with his family and said most of Main Street was safe. But everything to the southwest and west had been destroyed.
Risk look unfazed. He tended a religious site known as the Yarnell Shrine of St. Joseph, an outdoor sanctuary. Besides what he managed to throw into his trailer, nine years of life might be ash. That feeling in his gut tells him so, but he's not dwelling on the bad.
"I got my meds, my full belly, and we'll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes," Risk said.

About 500 firefighters are now battling the Yarnell Hill fire, and a bulldozer line has been built around the eastern flank of the blaze, officials said. In addition to all the dry chaparral and brush providing fuel, even green trees have been burning, said fire response spokesman Morrison.

The promise of possible thunderstorms Tuesday also offered little comfort, as downdrafts from major storm cells produce powerful gusts of wind that can send a fire in unpredictable directions -- the same scenario that officials think might have claimed the firefighters' lives on Sunday.

Ronnie Gamble, a 26-year-old Blue Ridge Hotshot Crew member, said his team was fighting the fire alongside the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew that lost 19 of its 20 members to the flames. The Yarnell Hill Fire was the third blaze the teams had fought together. But Gamble isn't able to talk about what happened that night -- his crew having witnessed the incident.

Pete Walter, Gamble's father-in-law, gave an account of what happened to the Granite Mountain crew on Sunday:

The two crews were close to each other fighting the blaze. When they saw that the fire was getting out of control, whipped up by the wind, one Granite Mountain crew member drove at least one vehicle down to where the Blue Ridge Hot Shot Crew was stationed. That crew member turned out to be the only Granite Mountain survivor.

Walter said the Granite Mountain crew was asked if they were OK and if they were "in the black" -- an area of safety. They said they were.

Before the flames overtook them, Walter said, the crew said they were looking for a place of safety.

Gamble, who recently joined his hotshot crew this year, said he knew some of the Granite Mountain crew personally, especially Scott Norris, who became the person he went to for advice on what to expect as a hotshot crew member.

"Run a lot. Hike a lot," Norris would tell him.

Walter, choir director at a local church attended by Norris, described the firefighter as tough but softspoken -- a gentle soul who was genuinely kind.

There was always friendly competition between the crews about who could cut line faster and better, Gamble said.

"They were just a wonderful group of men to work with because they worked just as hard as we did," he said. "They were able to hold their own."


Carcamo reported from Prescott, Pearce from Los Angeles and special correspondent Phippen from Wickenburg. Staff writer Rick Rojas in Prescott contributed to this report.