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Thursday 21 November 2019

Investigators probe fire crew death

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)

Investigators from across the US descended on an Arizona town to learn why 19 elite firefighters died in an out-of-control wildfire and whether human error played a role.

The investigation into the country's biggest loss of firefighters since September 11 2001 will look at whether the crew in Prescott paid attention to the weather forecast, created an escape route and took other precautions developed after a similar disaster in Colorado nearly two decades ago.

The team will also look at whether the crew should have been pulled out before the fire exploded.

On Tuesday, nearly 600 firefighters were battling the mountain blaze and an 8% containment figure announced by officials brought news of the first sign of progress against the deadly blaze.

Within hours on Sunday, violent wind gusts turned what was believed to be a relatively manageable, lightning-ignited forest fire into a death trap. In a desperate attempt at survival, the firefighters unfurled their foil-lined emergency shelters, but those offer only limited protection when in the direct path of a fire.

The lone survivor of the group was serving as a lookout and relaying key information to his colleagues. Brendan McDonough, 21, notified the others that the weather was changing rapidly and that the fire had switched direction because of the wind. He told them he was leaving the area and to contact him on the radio if they needed anything, said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman.

Mr Ward said Mr McDonough "did exactly what he was supposed to". Mr McDonough "has no desire to speak to anybody at this point," he added.

The government overhauled its safety procedures following the deaths of 14 firefighters in Colorado in 1994. "There are so many striking parallels between this tragedy and what happened on Storm King in 1994, it's almost haunting," said Lloyd Burton, professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Colorado. Those changes included policies under which no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather.

The Hotshot team based in Prescott entered the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear to remove brush and trees and deprive the flames of fuel. But the blaze grew from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.

About 500 firefighters battled the mountain blaze, which had burned about 13 square miles. Yavapai County authorities said about 200 homes and other structures burned in Yarnell, and hundreds of people have been evacuated. No part of the fire had been contained, and thunderstorms that could bring little rain and lots of lightning remained a major threat, said Karen Takai, a spokeswoman for the firefighting effort.

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