19 Elite Firefighters Lost in Arizona Wildfire

Prescott-based hotshot crew known for toughness, fought fires hand-to-hand
AP/Cronkite News, Connor Radnovich

The 19 firefighters killed Sunday in Arizona were part of an elite unit known as the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew. This 22-member squad worked on the front lines of the region's worst fires.

Hotshot crews may be sent anywhere in the United States at a moment’s notice to fight wildland fires. They have also helped put out flames in Mexico and Canada.

To become a Hotshot you must complete the “Arduous level” fitness test that includes a three-mile hike with a 45-pound pack made up of Pulaskis, chain saws, fusees and pumps in 45 minutes.  A career as a hotshot includes being on call 24-hours per day, 7 days a week during ‘fire season,’ which typically lasts six months out of the year.

“We are routinely exposed to extreme environmental conditions, long work hours, long travel hours and the most demanding of fireline tasks. Comforts such as beds, showers and hot meals are not always common,” according to the Fire and Aviation Management website.

All but one member of the Hotshot crew died in what was the deadliest wildfire for firefighters since the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles, which killed 29 in 1933. The most firefighters—340—were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.

The lightning-sparked fire had already destroyed 200 homes by the time the Prescott-based hotshots were sent in to battle an erratic fire amidst triple-digit temperatures in Arizona.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said the firefighters were forced to deploy their emergency shelters, a tent-like structure meant to shield firefighters from extreme heat and flames, when they are caught in the middle of a fire.

"One of the last fail safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective—kinda looks like a foil type—fire-resistant material—with the desire, the hope at least, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it," Fraijo told AP Sunday.

Trudy Thompson Rice, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon chapter of the American Red Cross, was at a shelter where 15 evacuees from the fire were sleeping early Monday. She told NBC that the evacuees knew some of the firefighters.

“You don’t want to lose any firefighters, but when it’s your neighbors it makes it particularly difficult,” she said. “They do hand-to-hand combat with these fires, and it’s very difficult work.”