Fire crews containing deadly Ariz. fire
By Taylor Higgins . CREATED Jul 5, 2013
PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) - Fire crews have contained enough of the wildfire that killed 19 firefighters over the weekend that they've begun sending crews home and are preparing to let evacuated residents return to the small town of Yarnell.
On Friday, 550 firefighters were fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire, now 80 percent contained. That's down from 680 firefighters the day before.
Remaining crews are working on building more fire lines in the rugged, rocky terrain and making sure the blaze doesn't spread.
Erratic winds sent the fire out-of-control on Sunday, killing 19 elite Hotshot firefighters.
The blaze also has destroyed more than 100 homes in Yarnell and burned about 13 square miles.
Authorities hope to allow Yarnell residents to return home on Saturday.
As many in this Old West town used the Independence Day celebration to honor 19 fallen firefighters, bereaved families began speaking more publically of their loved ones.
Coleen Turbyfill, mother of Travis Turbyfill, 27, on Thursday recalled that she had misgivings when her son's elite Hotshot firefighting crew set out for a blaze burning so close she could see the flames, but he comforted her and told her, "This is what I love."
Turbyfill and his 18 colleagues were killed Sunday battling a wildfire south of here in Yarnell, not far from the place they called home.
A day after Prescott remembered their brothers, there were several significant signs of progress Friday at the fire.
Electric power and propane company crews were to begin restoring service and inspecting gas tanks for leaks or other damage. The crews will be "trying to make it safe when the people come back to stop in and go about their lives," said fire management team spokesman Jim Whittington.
Also, fire bosses are releasing some of the assigned personnel because only so many crews can work in the areas where fire-break lines haven't been completed, he said. The latest count of assigned personnel was 550, down from nearly 600.
The fire is 80 percent contained, and that is expected to increase Friday as firefighters do more work on rugged, rocky terrain on the fire's north side, Whittington said.
The fire destroyed more than 100 houses and burned about 13 square miles. Yarnell remains evacuated, but many residents of the nearby community of Peoples Valley are allowed to return. Most others could be home this weekend.
The weather was relatively calm overnight with cloud cover Friday morning and increased humidity, but a change was in the forecast, Whittington said. Weather in recent days had thunderstorms forming to the east and north of the fire area, but thunderstorms expected later Friday could come from the south, from the Phoenix area, he said.
"So we'll have to be watching our southern flank," he said. "We have to be heads up on that."
Sudden wind shifts turned the fire on the Hotshots crew on Sunday.
The firefighters had deployed to what was thought to be a manageable lightning-caused forest fire near the small town of Yarnell, about 60 miles from Phoenix. Violent winds fueled the blaze and trapped the team. The Hotshots deployed their emergency fire shelters, but only the crew's lookout survived.
A red-eyed Amanda Marsh called a press conference Thursday to make her first public statements about her husband, Hotshot leader and founder Eric Marsh.
"Eric and I don't have children but he said that all the men on the crew were his kids," she told reporters at the local high school, a row of 16 firefighters standing behind her for support.
Across town, more than 10,000 residents found release for days' worth of pent up emotion in fireworks, dancing to patriotic songs, and the freedom to shout "America!" whenever the mood struck.
"It's a relief," said resident Todd Lynd as he watched a cover band play in front of a banner commemorating the fallen firefighters. "It's hard to heal by yourself."
The celebration - traditionally the biggest day of the year in this city of 40,000 - played out against the backdrop of handmade memorials, including clusters of 19 mini-American flags on grass lawns and rows of 19 candles glowing in packed restaurants.
Families of the Hotshots who attended the nighttime fireworks display were together but apart from the crowd, escorted by police to a separate viewing area.
On Saturday, the town will hold its traditional July Fourth parade, which features cowboys on horses, and winds around the elm-lined courthouse square.
The men's bodies, still in Phoenix for the autopsies, are expected to arrive on Sunday. Each firefighter will be driven in a hearse accompanied by motorcycle escorts and American flags.
A memorial service planned for Tuesday is expected to draw thousands.
Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions. A team of forest managers and safety experts is investigating.
While firefighters and support personnel have focused on the fire itself, "there's still an issue of what happened here" Sunday, Whittington said.
Associated Press writers Paul Davenport and Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix, Allen Breed and Felicia Fonseca in Prescott and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.
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