US & Canada

Arizona blaze rages on as 19 dead firefighters are named

The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the City of Prescott 1 July 2013
Image caption The dead firefighters were identified as members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew, shown here in an undated photo

A deadly wildfire raging in Arizona remains uncontained, as the 19 elite firefighters killed by the blaze were identified and mourned.

The bodies of the men, aged 21-43, received an honour guard on Monday as they were brought to Phoenix for post-mortem examinations.

President Barack Obama, on a visit to Africa, called the Arizona governor to offer condolences.

It is the highest death toll for a fire crew in a single incident since 9/11.

The firefighters, who died on Sunday, were part of a unit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and had battled other wildfires in New Mexico and Arizona in recent weeks, officials say.

'Dark day'

Fourteen of the deceased crewmen were in their 20s and many were described as family men.

One victim, 25-year-old Billy Warneke, had been expecting his first child with his wife, his grandmother told the Associated Press news agency.

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Media captionScores of homes have been destroyed and hundreds of residents evacuated

Chris MacKenzie, 30, and Kevin Woyjeck, 21, had followed in their fathers' footsteps to become firefighters.

"They were dedicated, hard-working people," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said of his team members.

"I never heard them complain. They always seemed to be playing pranks on each other and a few on me. And I had a great deal of respect for them."

The firefighters reportedly covered themselves in foil-lined, heat-resistant tarpaulins in a last-gasp effort to save themselves - but to no avail.

Only one member of the hotshots team survived - he was reportedly moving the unit's truck at the time of the tragedy, which unfolded 80 miles (130km) north-west of Phoenix.

On Monday a line of white vans carried the bodies of the deceased firefighters to Phoenix, the largest city in the state, for post-mortem examinations.

The procession received an honour guard of police officers and firefighters, passing under an arch of flags hanging from the ladders of two trucks parked on either side of the road.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has ordered flags in the state to be flown at half-mast, saying it was "as dark a day as I can remember".

"I know that it is unbearable for many of you, but it also is unbearable for me," she said, addressing residents and reporters in the town of Prescott, which has a population of about 40,000.

Image caption The bodies were brought to Phoenix on Monday for post-mortem examinations

"I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today."

President Obama, who was visiting Tanzania on Monday, offered federal support to battle the blaze.

He said the incident would prompt a reassessment of how to handle large, destructive wildfires.

But as the town mourned, the wildfire continued to burn out of control.

About 200 additional firefighters have been brought to tackle the blaze, bringing the total force to about 400. They included other hotshot teams sent from around the US.

The fire was believed to have been sparked by lightning on Friday near the small mountain town of Yarnell.

The uncontained conflagration was said to have scorched some 8,400 acres (3,400 hectares) of land.

Scores of homes have been destroyed and two towns evacuated.

In recent days, dozens of people across western US states have been treated for exhaustion and dehydration, amid a heatwave.

Temperatures in some areas were expected to reach 54C (130F), close to the world's all-time high recorded 100 years ago in California's Death Valley.

How wildfires spread

  • A fire needs fuel, oxygen and heat to burn. The fire threatening the town of Yarnell was started by lightning and spread rapidly in the very hot, dry conditions, fanned by strong winds
  • The fastest-moving and most dangerous part of the fire is known as the "head". Areas ahead of the fire are warmed as it approaches and flying embers blown by the wind spark spot fires, which cause it to leap further ahead
  • Some vegetation or fuel will burn quicker than others and this creates "fingers" of flame which, in turn, create pockets of land surrounded by fire, making it harder to tackle
  • Fires travel faster uphill than downhill, as the heat and smoke rise, heating areas higher up the hill and wind currents also tend to blow uphill, pushing the flames further. Burning embers may roll downhill, starting new fires

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