Indiana fire behavior analyst to assist in Arizona investigation

Drew Dailey
Published: .
Updated: .

Wildland firefighters from all around the country are mourning the loss of 19 of their own.

Arizona's governor has ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of 19 firefighters who were killed Sunday. Meantime, an Indiana firefighter is among those dispatched to help prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Nineteen of the 20 members of the elite firefighting team died when a wind-blown wildfire suddenly swept toward them in Yarnell, a mountain town about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. The one firefighter who survived had been moving the team's truck at the time. The team was based in Prescott, Arizona.

The bodies of the 19 firefighters were brought to Phoenix Monday in a caravan of white vans. The medical examiner's office in Phoenix will conduct autopsies.

The fire exploded in size to about 13 square miles by this morning. It destroyed about 50 homes and is threatening 250 others in and around Yarnell.

A video shot by a student at Arizona State University shows the elite team training last year. It shows the team getting into their fire shelters, which is a last resort when trapped by a fast moving fire. Officials say all 19 firefighters that were killed did deploy these shelters.

It isn't clear if all the people in the video were part of the same team killed Sunday.

The rain has the fire level at Morgan-Monroe State Forest as minimal. That is fortunate but also makes them available to go elsewhere.

"We could be mobilized anywhere right now," said Drew Dailey, State Wildland Firefighter Coordinator for the state of Indiana.

Dailey told Eyewitness News that one Hoosier is already on his way. Stewart Turner from Upland, Indiana has been dispatched to the Yarnell, Arizona fire. Dailey says he is a fire behavior analyst.

"We train for situation awareness. Try to post lookouts to watch fire behavior. Monitor weather and utilize folks like the fire behavior analyst we have deployed from her to provide us situation awareness, where we can at all costs avoid situations just such as this," said Dailey.

The bodies of the 19-member elite firefighting crew were retrieved on Monday. Many had deployed the fire shelter that all wildland firefighters carry. Dailey demonstrated how the portable shelter is deployed.

"If situation warrants we pull this out and deploy it as a shelter. You shake it loose, get it on the ground, crawl inside there and secure the shelter to the ground. This is last resort survival. As you can tell it has worked in the past but again it is last resort survival."

So-called "hot shot" firefighters are the best at what they do. Even so,  fighting wildfires is an unpredictable business. It is also a small world. Many hot shots from around the country have worked together at one time or another. They have crossed paths at some of the nation's most threatening hot spots. They also know no matter how good they are, no matter how much training they have received, their job is unpredictable.

"While we are very good at analyzing risk and mitigating risk there is still inherent risk to be had in wildland fires," said Dailey.

Indiana already has one firefighter on the way to Arizona. With all the rain here in Indiana, he may not be the last.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is predicting that the tragedy will force government leaders to address broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive wildfires.