THIRTY MILES OUTSIDE PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Dan Fraijo doesn’t know precisely when his men left Prescott, nor what happened to them. But he knows they’re not coming back.
Nineteen firefighters with the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew -- an elite wildland firefighting unit sponsored by the Prescott Fire Department and its chief, Fraijo -- died near Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday in the worst wildland firefighting loss in the U.S. since 1933.
“Emotionally? We’re devastated,” Fraijo said at a news conference late Sunday. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’re ever going to meet. Right now we’re in crisis. ... Truly, we’re going through a terrible crisis right now.”
The men went missing as the evacuated town of Yarnell was ravaged by the blaze, fanned by winds sometimes exceeding 40 mph and temperatures approaching 100 degrees. One official estimated that 200 structures had been lost.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. “It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: Fighting fires is dangerous work.”
President Obama praised the firefighters as “heroes -- highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet. ... Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers” to the firefighters’ families.
Officials lost radio contact with the crew at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, said Steve Skurja, assistant spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. A helicopter crew spotted the bodies, he told The Times.
He said all of the firefighters had deployed their fire shelters -- an emergency measure when there is no escape.
Skurja confirmed that 19 members of the 20-person crew had died. One survivor was hospitalized with injuries, he said, but he did not know the firefighter’s condition.
“The fire was very aggressive. It just overtook them,” Skurja said.
As news of the firefighters’ deaths spread late Sunday, the gravity of the loss weighed on Prescott.
“Once we started getting notification of what had happened, I lost all track of what was happening in Yarnell,” Fraijo said. “Fire departments are like families, so the entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this.”
The names of the lost firefighters had not been released as of Sunday evening, but firefighting agencies across the country were already taking to social media to send their condolences. Fraijo said some firefighters’ families were notified by email, others in person.
A 2012 Cronkite News profile of the team described a tightly knit unit that had never taken to fire shelters before while fighting some of the West’s toughest wildland blazes. The team studied other fires in which crews had been overrun and killed by wildfires, even when taking cover in shelters.
Fraijo described a unit that sometimes carried 40 to 50 pounds of equipment to build firefighting lines between erratic wildfires and the homes threatened by the flames -- a level of dedication that involved sometimes sleeping in the wild.
“Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common,” the team said on its Prescott city website, which had crashed Sunday night, presumably from visitor traffic.
“The nature of our work requires us to endure physical hardships beyond most people’s experiences,” the site continued. “Environmental extremes, long hours, bad food, and steep, rugged terrain, demand that we train early and often by running and hiking, doing core exercises, yoga, and weight training.”
The site added that the group had a “fitness goal” of members being able to complete a 1.5-mile run in 10 minutes, 35 seconds; 40 sit-ups in 60 seconds; 25 push-ups in 60 seconds; and seven pull-ups.
“If you ever met them, you’d meet some of the finest, most dedicated people,” Fraijo said.
The firefighters were deployed to battle a blaze in an area that Skurja described as rocky and extremely dry with deep canyons.
“The terrain here is rough and extremely rugged,” he said. “Firefighters have had a hard time.”
Firefighters evacuated Yarnell and the nearby town of Peeples Valley as the blaze roared toward them, he said.
So far, 2,000 acres have burned in the so-called Yarnell Hill fire, which has not yet been contained.
Pearce reported from Los Angeles and Carcamo from Arizona. Staff writer Victoria Kim in Los Angeles contributed to this report.