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Burns, breathing issues killed firefighters

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Members of the Centennial Initial Attack Fire Crew, from Island Park, Idaho, pay their respects Thursday at a memorial outside the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew fire station in Prescott, Ariz. Nineteen firefighters from Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were killed June 30 battling a wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz. The elite crew of firefighters were overtaken by the out-of-control blaze as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields.

By FELICIA FONSECA and AMANDA LEE MYERS
Associated Press

PRESCOTT, Ariz. – The 19 firefighters killed during last weekend in an Arizona blaze died of burns and inhalation problems, according to initial autopsy findings released Thursday.

Cari Gerchick, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office in Phoenix, said the hot shots died from burns, carbon-monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation, or a combination of the factors. The autopsies were performed Tuesday, but more detailed autopsy reports should be released in three months, pending lab work.

“Our work is not done,” Gerchick told The Associated Press. “But what we are glad about is that we can release these fallen heroes to their families for burial, and that grieving process can continue.”

The bodies of the Prescott-based hot shots will be taken back to the hilltop community in a 75-mile procession from Phoenix on Sunday. Each firefighter will be in an individual hearse, accompanied by motorcycle escorts, honor guard members and American flags.

A memorial service planned for Tuesday is expected to draw thousands of mourners, including the families of the firefighters.

The firefighters had deployed Sunday to what was thought to be a manageable lightning-caused forest fire near the small town of Yarnell, about 60 miles northwest of Phoenix.

Violent winds turned the fire and trapped the highly trained hot shots, most of them in the prime of their lives. Fire officials said the crew had deployed their fire shelters, which can briefly protect people from blazes.

It was the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters since Sept. 11.

Sunday’s tragedy raised questions of whether the crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and dry conditions that caused the fire to explode.

A team of forest-managers and safety experts is investigating what went wrong and plan to release some initial findings by the weekend. In addition to examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports, they’ll also talk to the crew’s sole survivor, a 21-year-old lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions.

About 600 firefighters continue to fight the blaze, which was 85 percent contained Thursday night. The fire has destroyed more than 100 homes and burned about 13 square miles. Yarnell remained evacuated Thursday, but authorities hope to allow residents back in by Saturday.

Operations section chief Carl Schwope of a multi-agency incident team says the blaze isn’t actively burning and crews have been working to ensure any embers are out cold.

Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher said Peeples Valley residents will be able to return home later Thursday evening. Mascher says only those who can show proof of residency will be allowed past a checkpoint.

Evacuation orders for Yarnell remain in place.

The Yarnell Hill Fire was sparked by lightning June 28. Two days later, violent winds fed the fire and took the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew by surprise, killing 19 members of the elite crew.

In Prescott, they remembered the Fourth, but also the 19.

At Bistro St. Michael on Whiskey Row in this old West town, 19 candles burned beneath red, white and blue bunting, one for each firefighter killed last weekend battling a wildfire not far from the place they called home.

In a quiet neighborhood near the high school, which at least five of them attended, 19 miniature U.S. flags were planted in front yards, each pole tied with the purple ribbon that commemorates fallen firefighters.

At the makeshift memorial on the fence that wrapped around the elite hot-shots firefighting team’s headquarters, people left 19 potted plants, 19 pinwheels, 19 handwritten cards and 19 religious candles.

On a day meant to ponder the nation’s birth and those who built and defended it through 237 years, Prescott’s residents had 19 of their neighbors, their friends, their relatives to remember.

“I just wanted to thank them and let them know that they’re heroes and that they’re missed,” said Susan Reynolds, who hung a piece of fabric with an expression of thanks on a string of panels that hung like a prayer flag on the fence.

Away from the celebrations, public memorials and the fireworks planned for later Thursday, some of the fallen firefighters’ families were quietly trying to come to terms with their own personal loss. Occasionally, relatives would emerge to speak about the fallen.

“There’s no celebration today,” said Laurie McKee, whose 21-year-old nephew, Grant McKee, died in the fire. “We’re doing OK, but it’s still up and down.”

McKee’s father and aunt picked up items recovered from his truck wWednesday night, and were comforted when the fire chief told them that Grant McKee had been part of “the Navy Seals of firefighting,” his aunt said. His family was planning to spend the day at home, visiting with relatives flying in for his funeral.

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