(PRESCOTT, Ariz.) — The lone survivor of the wildfire that killed 19 firefighters has been identified as Brendan McDonough, according to the Prescott Fire Department.
The elite team of firefighters was battling a raging wildfire in Yarnell, Ariz., when dry thunderstorms laced with strong, erratic winds shifted unexpectedly in the searing heat of the Southwest, likely creating the perfect storm that trapped and killed them, according to officials.
McDonough, 21, a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, was not in the path of the inferno because he was moving the crew’s truck when his colleagues were killed.
Karen Takai, a fire information officer at Sandia Ranger district in New Mexico, said at a news conference Tuesday that the losses have been emotional for the firefighters who are still fighting the blaze but that they are determined to extinguish the fire for their fallen comrades.
“They were fighting the fire on the mountain. That was their charge. That was their job,” Takai said. “To honor the firefighters, they’re going to put this fire out.”
The wildfire that killed 18 of 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew Sunday in Yarnell came at the start of the state’s monsoon season, a weather phenomenon that brings lightning strikes, gusty winds, dust storms and sometimes rain to the state during the summer months. The 19th dead firefighter was from another group.
The ages of the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew ranged from 21 to 43, with 14 in their 20s.
A lightning strike Friday in Yarnell, about 90 miles northwest of Phoenix, started the wildfire amid triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.
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The winds that helped fuel the fire were notably unpredictable and contributed to the rapidly shifting nature of the blaze. The early monsoon storms typically have plenty of lightning and wind, but often have little rain. Those ingredients make up a deadly combination in a state that is bone-dry. Seventy-five percent of Arizona is suffering from severe drought or worse.
“When those two collide, you get unexpected fire behavior and surprising fire behavior and explosive fire behavior,” Takai said.
The Yarnell fire has burned through 8,400 acres and none of it is contained. There are 18 engines, eight support water tenders and a total of 500 personnel on the scene. An estimated 200 homes and other structures burned in Yarnell and the Yarnell Fire Department and Yavapai County will continue to assess the community Tuesday.
Sunday was the deadliest day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11, when 340 died in New York City. And experts say Sunday’s tragedy won’t keep them from sending men and women to the frontlines.
“It takes a firefighter on the ground digging a fire line that stops the advance of the fire,” former U.S. Forest Service wildfire expert Jim Paxon said.
Tuesday was expected to be another punishing day for firefighters with heavy hearts, still mourning the loss of their fallen brothers. A high of 115 degrees was expected, yet air tankers continue to drop fire retardant on the flames.
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