William M. Welch, USA TODAY
PRESCOTT, Ariz. - Federal fire investigators were arriving on the scene of the Yarnell Hill Fire on Tuesday to try to figure out how and why 19 firefighters died battling the still-uncontrolled central Arizona wildfire.
Karen Takai, spokeswoman for the firefighting command that took charge of the blaze Monday evening, said investigators were expected to arrive during the day but would not begin examining the scene of the deaths until Wednesday.
"Today they're just coming together,'' she said.
She offered the first public description of the setting where the firefighters, all members of the Prescott Fire Department's elite Granite Mountain Hotshots team, died when they were overcome by flames Sunday.
She said they were working on a side slope of a hill or mountain in the valley near Yarnell, Ariz., where the fire has consumed more than 8,000 acres. She said the setting was a combination of substantial rocks and dry vegetation that fuels the fire. She said the area was typical of the valley below the town of Yarnell, which sits at 4,780 feet elevation.
Takai said investigators have not examined the scene yet. Crews removed the bodies Monday morning and transported them in a caravan of white vehicles to the coroner's office in Phoenix.
She said investigators will be looking at the weather conditions at the time of the fire and other factors.
"We know there was a weather change'' at the time of the tragedy, she said. A change in wind conditions can cause a large wildfire to behave in an erratic, unpredictable manner.
Takai said other details would come from investigators after they have done their work. The investigation will be conducted by a group of fire experts from a variety of federal and regional fire agencies.
The surviving Granite Mountain Hotshot was a lookout for his team, Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward said Tuesday at a community meeting.
Brendan McDonough, 21, warned his teammates the wind had shifted and was pushing the fire toward them, Ward said.
Prescott Fire Department Batallion Chief Ralph Lucas said a thunderstorm caused the wind shift, driving the fire to a predetermined "trigger point" that prompted McDonough to radio he was moving out. He asked his teammates if they needed more from him, then told them he was walking out to a bulldozer-cleared line and safety.
McDonough did not have to deploy his portable shelter. After reaching another fire crew, he was driven out.
"He left his post based on protocol and went to another location," Ward said. "He was doing his job.''
Ward said earlier reports and statements that the lone survivor had been moving equipment were incorrect.
"He did exactly what he was supposed to do and the crew did what it was supposed to do,'' Ward said.
He described McDonough as "very distraught.''
"He's very emotional and confused," he said "He's concerned for the families, mostly.''
Fire officials said they were bringing in more personnel and equipment, including C-130 air tankers, to try to contain the fire.
"To honor the firefighters (killed), they're going to put this fire out,'' Takai said.
More than 400 people are involved in fighting the fire now, and that number will grow significantly, she said.
Among the new arrivals Tuesday was an on-scene meteorologist from the National Weather Service office in Reno who will provide real-time radar and other guidance on winds, thunderstorms and other changing conditions.
The fire is being fought in hot, dry conditions, but the relative humidity was increasing Tuesday, an encouraging development because a lack of humidity is a significant factor in how vegetation fuels fire.
Jim Wallmann, the meterologist, said there was potential later Tuesday for extreme winds of as much as 80 miles an hour, which could make the fire spread rapidly and unpredictably. He will have access to radar readings and can get information on changing wind predictions to firefighters in the field in a matter of minutes, he said.
The initial fire command team did not have an on-scene meteorologist Sunday when the hotshots team members were killed. Stewart Turner, a fire behavior analyst who is part of the fire management team, said that at the time of the tragedy, fire officials at the scene were receiving information from the local office of the National Weather Service. Having a meteorologist there probably would not have made a difference for the hotshot crew's survival, he said.
Takai said the meterologist was dispatched to the scene as part of an expanded command team "able to handle the higher complexity'' that the fire now presents.
Calm winds on Tuesday kept the fire from growing and allowed crews to achieve 8% containment.
"It was a good day for progress on the fire," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Suzanne Flory said.
Feared high winds did not materialize, she said. The arrival of more crews has boosted the number of personnel battling the fire to 596, she said.
Hotshots, as they are called in firefighting in the West, are elite, highly trained firefighters who walk with hand equipment - shovels, hoes and similar implements - to the edge of the fire to try to establish cleared lines that will stop the fire's spread in situations where heavy equipment such as bulldozers cannot reach or are unavailable.
The Granite Mountain Hotshot team was unusual in that it was part of a municipal fire department rather than a state, regional or federal agency. Turner said the members met the same high training standards and, though part of a local fire department, were often dispatched to fires in other parts of the country.
The flow of information from fire commanders has increased since federal authorities took control of the fire Monday evening. Takai said one of their tasks is determining how many residences have been destroyed in Yarnell and surrounding areas.
There have been widely circulated reports of 200 or more homes destroyed. Takai said the fire command is trying to sort out conflicting information created because some damaged or destroyed buildings may have been outbuildings or other structures and may have been counted incorrectly as residences.
Takai said they are sure 50 homes were destroyed and are trying to come up with a better estimate.
Hundreds of evacuated families are eager for that information, she acknowledged, and there has been frustration over a lack of access to the town and their homes. Roadblocks set up by state police have cut off access to the entire Peeples Valley area and prevent residents from returning to see whether their property survived.
Fire officials were holding two community meetings with displaced residents Tuesday to discuss those issues and others.
Investigators will release preliminary information on their findings later this week, state fire information officer Carrie Dennett said in a written statement.
The investigation will be led by Florida state forester Jim Karels. Mike Dudley, acting director of cooperative forestry for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, will be the secondary team lead. Other agencies include the U.S. Forest Service Missoula Technology and Development Center, the Missoula Fire Department, the Bureau of Land Management and the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Dennett said.
"As part of the investigation, the team will review Sunday's weather conditions, fire department records, radio logs and any other evidence that may help determine how to prevent a similar tragedy in the future,'' Arizona state forester Scott Hunt said in the statement. He is serving as a local liaison to the investigators.