By Tim Gaynor
PRESCOTT, Arizona (Reuters) – Firefighters on Wednesday tightened their grip on a blaze in Arizona that killed 19 of their comrades days earlier in the deadliest U.S. wildfire tragedy in 80 years, and officials said they feared more bodies may be found during mop-up operations.
Strong, erratic winds that whipped the so-called Yarnell Hills fire into a deadly frenzy over the weekend abated for a second day, helping crews make headway in subduing the flames, officials for the firefighting command team told Reuters.
As of Wednesday morning, a force of nearly 600 firefighters had managed to achieve their first measure of solid enclosure around the fire’s perimeter, estimated at 8 percent, they said. Containment was expanded to 45 percent later in the day.
Authorities also reported that 114 buildings had been confirmed as destroyed in and around the tiny central Arizona town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. Earlier estimates of property losses varied from 50 to 200 structures.
From the air, extensive fire damage was visible in the western outskirts of Yarnell, but the center of town looked relatively untouched.
The blaze has blackened some 8,400 acres of rugged, brush-covered hillsides and ravines since it was ignited on Friday by lightning.
Officials said they could not rule out the possibility that more people had died in the blaze, possibly residents who had refused to heed evacuation orders at the peak of the fire on Sunday afternoon.
“This fire moved approximately 4 miles in 20 minutes,” Yavapai County Sheriff Chief Deputy John Russell told Reuters. “We had already started evacuating everyone … and we experienced people who were not going to leave.”
“When we say we have a concern, it’s because someone looks at you in the eye and says, ‘I’m not leaving, this is my home, I’m going to protect it,’ so we go to the next one,” he said.
Russell said search teams would begin combing through debris of gutted homes in the next few days, after the area was secured by utility crews.
“Over the next week, we are going to be going through the properties affected by this fire, just looking for victims. We don’t have information that there are any, but it’s something that we are concerned about,” Russell said.
Officials cautioned that plenty of dense, drought-parched scrub oak and chaparral was left unburned on the ground, providing ample fuel for creeping embers and hot spots to reignite.
And the likelihood of heavy, late-afternoon thunderstorms remained in the region’s weather forecasts, posing another wild card in firefighting efforts. Powerful wind bursts and lightning unleashed by such storms could quickly set off a renewed firestorm, officials said.
Gale-force winds from a thunderstorm cell that moved through the area on Sunday are believed to have sparked the blaze, fanning flames that abruptly changed course and overwhelmed a group of firefighters before they could take cover.
The deaths of the 19 men, members of a specially trained outfit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildland blaze since at least 25 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, records show.
A 20th member of the team who was acting as lookout and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew on higher ground, survived unhurt.
More than 2,000 people gathered at a high school in Prescott, Arizona, the nearby hometown of the fallen hotshot squad, on Tuesday evening to offer prayers.
Yarnell and the adjacent community of Peeples Valley, which together are home to roughly 1,000 people, remained evacuated.
Fire incident commander Clay Templin told displaced residents at a community meeting on Tuesday that evacuees would probably not be allowed to return to their homes before Saturday. Full containment of the fire is not expected for at least another nine days, officials said.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Stacey Joyce)