July 4, 2013 in Nation/World

Investigators probe deadly wildfire

Crews make progress on fire that killed 19 firefighters
Molly Hennessy-Fiske Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Fire investigator Jim Karels speaks to reporters after he arrived in Yarnell, Ariz., to investigate the deaths of 19 firefighters.
(Full-size photo)

PRESCOTT, Ariz. – About 550 firefighters took advantage of better weather, including overnight rain and less wind, to battle the deadly Yarnell Hill fire, which has consumed more than 8,400 acres and was 45 percent contained as of Wednesday, officials said.

Later in the day, officials said they had reached more burned areas, assessed structure damage and removed the buggy used by the Granite Mountain hotshots, 19 of whom were killed Sunday when the wildfire overran their position.

An eight-person investigative team arrived late Tuesday. Investigators plan to file a preliminary report within 60 days, but a full report will take months, according to Jim Karels, the Florida Forest Service director who is leading the team.

“Our goal is to look at what happened and see how to prevent it on other fires,” Karels said at a Wednesday afternoon briefing at a roadblock near the fire scene.

Mike Dudley of the U.S. Forest Service said the hotshots had retreated to a “safety zone” when they were killed, but “we can’t say for sure whether or not it was the one they had identified” initially.

“The big thing here is the drought, the weather event – when you have that, you have extreme fire,” Dudley said, noting that two years ago this week he lost two firefighters who were similarly overrun by a wildfire.

Yavapai County sheriff’s officials said the fire, which was sparked by lightning on Friday, has damaged at least 114 structures. They said the fire initially burned about 150 acres, then swelled to 300 Sunday, then expanded Sunday afternoon to 1,000 acres, moving fast at about 12 mph.

At the same time, “there was a significant wind shift,” incident commander Clay Templin said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, congressional Republicans cited the blaze as a reason to renew their effort to thin national forests aggressively. The issue has been a longtime point of contention between conservatives and environmentalists, who say the efforts are driven by logging companies.

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation announced it will hold a hearing July 11 to examine how “excessive growth” in forests may be adding to the risk of wildfire.

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