City of Prescott/Reuters /Landov
The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the City of Prescott in Arizona. The elite team of 19 firemen were killed on Sunday in one of deadliest U.S. firefighting disasters in decades as flames raced through dry brush and grass in central Arizona, destroying scores of homes and forcing the evacuation of two towns.
UPDATE 5:51 p.m.: Fourth firefighter with SoCal roots identified
A fourth firefighter with Southern California roots has been identified among the 19 killed fighting an Arizona wildfire.
The principal and football coach at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School say 2005 graduate Sean Misner is among the fallen firefighters. The 26-year-old Misner leaves a pregnant wife.
EARLIER: Three Southern California men were among the 19 firefighters killed Sunday in central Arizona in what is being called the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least 30 years.
The men killed were Kevin Woyjeck, the 21-year-old son of a Los Angeles County fire captain, and Hemet natives Bill Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, 30.
L.A. County fire Inspector Tony Akins says Woyjeck died Sunday while fighting the out-of-control fire that destroyed dozens of homes northwest of Phoenix.
He is the son of Capt. Joe Woyjeck, a veteran of the L.A. County Fire Department said:
Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) confirms that Kevin Woyjeck, a Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew member based out of Prescott, Arizona, killed in the line of duty on Sunday, June 30, 2013, is the son of LACoFD Fire Captain Joe Woyjeck. Kevin Woyjeck is a former member of LACoFD Explorer Post 9 and also once worked for Care Ambulance Service in Southern California.
The Fire Explorer program is a training mentorship program. Woyjeck's family lives in Seal Beach, according to NBC L.A.
L.A. County CEO Bill Fujioka tweeted his condolences.
Our thoughts are with LACo Fire Cap. Joe Woyjeck and his family. Joe's son, Kevin, was one of 19 brave men who lost their lives in AZ fire.— Bill Fujioka (@LACountyCEO) July 1, 2013
Another Southern California firefighter, Chris MacKenzie of Hemet, was also amongst the killed, his uncle told NBC L.A. The 29-year-old graduated from Hemet High School in 2001.
Warneke joined the hotshot crew in April and was a four-year veteran with the U.S. Marine Corps, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise. He graduated Hemet High in 2005.
Nearly all of those killed were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group based in Prescott, Ariz., that uses rigorous training to prepare for fighting wildfires. They had been forced to use temporary shelters in an attempt to survive. They are frequently deployed to the front lines of firefighting efforts against such blazes.
The Yarnell Hill Fire started Friday near the town of Yarnell, about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. The cause is under investigation, but many news outlets are reporting that the fire may have been sparked by a lightning strike. The blaze grew quickly and erratically, spreading from 2,000 acres to 6,000 acres as of late Sunday night, with Arizona State Forest Division spokesman Mike Reichling telling the Associated Press Monday that the fire was now 8,374 acres. The flames have destroyed an estimated 200 homes.
Eighteen of the firefighters who died Sunday were part of the Granite Mountain team. There have been conflicting reports about whether the 19th firefighter was part of that group.
Monday morning, the local Daily Courier said simply, "Prescott is mourning."
The loss has led to the creation of a Facebook page honoring those killed by the fire over the weekend. As of this morning, more than 100,000 people had liked the page, with many people, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, writing in with their condolences.
Hotshot crews often have about 20 members. At least one member of the Granite Mountain team had been working elsewhere, according to reports. Cut off from safety, the firefighters tried to use personal emergency shelters — sort of a cross between a tent and a sleeping bag — to survive.
"They're a last-ditch effort. They're something that we train on, but it's not something that we rely on, in any case," Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward tells Fox 10 News. "The only thing that we can say is that, it must have been a very unbearable situation and a last resort," he added, noting the firefighters' training and awareness of conditions.
"Emotionally, we're devastated. We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet," Prescott fire chief Dan Fraijo says. "I mean, right now, we're in crisis."
Incident Commander Mike Reichling tells ABC 15 what helped make the Yarnell fire so dangerous:
"This fire was very radical in its behavior, the fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south, it turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon. That's what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels."
The Arizona Republic puts the loss in historic perspective, reporting that "the Sunday incident is believed to be the deadliest firefighting toll in a wildfire since 1933, and the deadliest single event for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."
The Granite Mountain Hotshots had worked on the nearby Doce fire in June, according to the Courier. It also fought fires in New Mexico this year.
In a statement issued by the White House early Monday, President Obama called the fallen firefighters heroes.
Here's the president's statement:
"Yesterday, nineteen firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. They were 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. In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need. But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy."
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered all city flags flown at half-staff in memory of the 19 Hotshot firefighters killed by an Arizona forest fire.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck similarly asked his officers to wear mourning bands to honor the crew. Beck calls it an unspeakable tragedy.
Officials are promising an investigation into what happened. Yarnell Hill is one of several wildfires currently burning in the U.S. NPR's "Fire Forecast" app, which is updated daily, keeps track of reported wildfires. We'll embed it below. You can change the location by entering a new "ZIP code, city, etc."
Here is a look at some of the deadliest U.S. tragedies to have claimed the lives of wildland firefighters, including the 19 killed in the Arizona fire Sunday (via the Associated Press):
- June 30, 2013: Nineteen members of an elite crew are killed in a fire northwest of Phoenix that lit up the night sky in the forest above the town of Yarnell. The fast-moving blaze fueled by hot, dry conditions is the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.
- Aug. 5, 2008: Nine people were killed when a helicopter crashed shortly after taking off with a load of firefighters heading back to camp in Northern California. Seven of the dead were firefighters with Grayback Forestry Inc. The crew was fighting a forest fire on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest outside Redding, Calif.
- Aug. 24, 2003: Eight contract firefighters who had spent two weeks fighting an Idaho wildfire were killed on their way home when their van collided with a tractor-trailer and exploded into flames outside Vale, Ore. The firefighters, all men, worked for First Strike Environmental, a contract firefighting company and all were from Oregon.
- July 6, 1994: A blaze near Glenwood Springs, Colo., killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames. The lightning-sparked Storm King Mountain blaze roared through shrubs as the firefighters scrambled uphill. Thirty-five firefighters on the mountain that day survived.
- July 9, 1953: The Rattlesnake fire in Southern California took the lives of 15 firefighters battling a blaze in Mendocino National Forest.
- Aug. 5, 1949: The Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont., killed 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger after they were overrun by flames.
- Oct. 3, 1933: The Griffith Park wildfire in Los Angeles killed 29 firefighters.
This story has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many firefighters were killed in the Arizona fire.