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Sandy firefighters mourn loss of Arizona Hotshots

SANDY — A devastating wildfire in central Arizona claimed the lives of 19 firefighters Sunday, and crews are still scrambling to contain the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Firefighters across the nation are mourning the loss of the firefighters.

“Losing one (firefighter) is a bad day, but to have 19, all in the same fire, it’s a bad day for firefighters across the nation,” Sandy Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Cline said.

The tragedy Sunday all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, the Associated Press reported. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.

Hotshots are elite firefighters sent in from around the country to battle the fiercest wildfires. The lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill Fire has destroyed about 50 homes. An additional 200 firefighters were on the scene Monday to help the 200 already battling the fire.

The Arizona firefighters were using their emergency shelters, something all wildland firefighters are trained to do, but they hope they never have to.

Firefighters in Sandy often help with wildfires.

“We generally support more from a home-protection standpoint,” Sandy Fire Capt. Daniel Christensen said.

Sandy also has several neighborhoods in some of the higher-risk hillside areas.

The sleeping bag-shaped, fire-resistant shelters are reflective, can withstand up to 500 degrees and are designed only for one-time use. Green ones are used frequently for training.

“If all our plans have failed to that point and you’re in a bad situation, then you go to that fire shelter,” Christensen said.

Once it’s decided to deploy the fire shelter, firefighters get rid of all unnecessary tools and gear and just keep their radio and water, he said. They cover their entire body and stay as close to the ground as possible.

In addition to blocking out the heat, the shelters are designed to trap some of the cleaner air. Firefighters stay inside until the danger has passed.

“It won’t withstand direct heat or direct flame impingement,” Christensen said. “Like any of our fire gear with direct flame impingement, they’ll burn and melt, and so it just reflects heat.”

He said firefighters train for such situations, but few have actually been in one.

"We have people that are out on a lookout,” Christensen explained. “We have safety areas. We stay in communication with weather changes and all that, so we're always trying to be prepared. We're staying in burned areas. We call it staying in the black. We don't want to be uphill.”

While it is still hard to say what went wrong Sunday in Arizona, firefighters say sometimes even the best plans can be thwarted by an unexpected change.

“With the different kinds of vegetation, it can be burning pretty predictable, and then you get a wind come up and it can move quickly,” Christensen said.