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Tuesday 20 February 2018

80mph gusts expected at fire scene

Wendy Tollefsen lays flowers at a makeshift memorial outside a fire station in Prescott, Arizona (AP/Julie Jacobson)
Wendy Tollefsen lays flowers at a makeshift memorial outside a fire station in Prescott, Arizona (AP/Julie Jacobson)
Firefighters react during a memorial service in Prescott, Arizona (AP/Julie Jacobson)
Firefighters gather in an embrace during a memorial service in Prescott, Arizona (AP/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle)
A wildfire burns homes in Yarnell, Arizona (AP/The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski)
A home burns amid the Yarnell Hill Fire in Yarnell, Arizona (AP/The Arizona Republic, Tom Story)
Nineteen firefighters died tackling a wildfire in Arizona (AP)
Firefighters monitor a restaurant as the Yarnell Hill fire burns in Arizona (AP)
Residents evacuate along Hays Road in Peeples Valley, Arizona (AP)

Wind more powerful than the gusts that fanned an Arizona wildfire over the weekend, killing 19 members of an elite firefighting crew, were expected to whip up the flames as crews work to corral the blaze feasting on tinder-dry vegetation.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Wallmann said powerful wind is forecast, with a worst-case scenario of 80mph gusts. He also said possible weekend thunderstorms could further complicate efforts.

"The winds are going to be a serious factor for us," said fire behaviour analyst Stewart Turner.

Fire spokeswoman Karen Takai said it remains unclear how many houses have burned, but crews were working to figure out the scope of the destruction. The current estimate is 50 homes lost.

"It is very difficult for the public out here right now. They're out of their homes, there's a lot of uncertainty for them," she said.

For the 19 firefighters killed, violent wind gusts turned a lightning-caused forest fire into a death trap that left no escape.

In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters - members of a highly skilled Hotshot crew - unfurled their foil-lined, heat-resistant shelters and rushed to cover themselves on the ground. But the success of the shelters depends on firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging fire.

Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit's truck at the time.

The blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 acres in a matter of hours, and Prescott City councilman Len Scamardo said the wind and fire made it impossible for the firefighters to flee.

"The winds were coming from the south-east, blowing to the west, away from Yarnell and populated areas. Then the wind started to blow in. The wind kicked up to 50mph gusts and it blew east, south, west - every which way," Mr Scamardo said. "What limited information we have was there was a gust of wind from the north that blew the fire back, and trapped them."

Press Association

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