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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

home : latest news : latest news July 27, 2015

U.S. senators visit firefighters' families; blaze 90 percent contained
Joanna Dodder Nellans
The Daily Courier

Vice President Joe Biden plans to attend an 11 a.m. Tuesday memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who lost their lives battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire last Sunday.

Multi-agency efforts on the fire battle, the investigation into the firefighter deaths, and Tuesday's memorial for the firefighters combined into one Joint Operations Center at the Prescott High School Friday to better coordinate the efforts.

Many of the country's other 109 elite hotshot crews will be sending representatives to the 11 a.m. Tuesday memorial at Tim's Toyota Center in Prescott Valley, said memorial spokesman Steven Berube, who works for one of the Southwest Incident Management teams as well as the New York City Fire Department.

Memorial planners are seeking honor guards, pipes & drums, buglers and rifle teams for the memorial as well as subsequent funerals and transport of firefighters' remains to their hometowns through late July.

More than 200 firefighting personnel are in Prescott to help plan for the memorial alone, he said.

"As soon as we heard they needed help, we were right on it," Berube said.

Senators visit families

The fire killed 19 of the 20 crew members of the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots Sunday when the wind shifted and they were overcome by the flames.

U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, who were in Prescott Friday for the local Republicans' annual Independence Day barbecue, met with the families of the fallen firefighters earlier Friday and then spoke to the media.

"The magnitude of this tragedy on a small town is enormous," Flake said.

"As far as we can tell, this terrible tragedy was not something that was inevitable," McCain said. "A freak wind shift...was the cause."

Both McCain and Flake plan to attend Tuesday's memorial.

McCain and Flake expressed concerns about $115 million worth of automatic sequester cuts to wildland firefighting resources that McCain said will result in 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire engines this season.

McCain said the country needs more heavy air tankers after dropping from 44 in 2002 to 18 last year. He and other members of Congress have asked the Department of Defense to transfer more of its older planes to the Forest Service. "It's clear that we are facing cuts that will reduce the capability of the Forest fight these fires," McCain said.

One-fourth of Arizona has burned in wildfires over the last decade, he said, citing the long-term drought and overstocked forests as contributing factors. He supports more timber contracts to thin out the forests.

"In the older days, fires just swept through and didn't do damage," he said. "They do now."

APS works on lines

Approximately 575 Yarnell residents remain evacuated because of the wildfire.

They were evacuated June 30, two days after lightning ignited the Yarnell Hill wildfire near Yarnell about 20 miles south of Prescott.

Some won't have a home to return to; the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office says 127 structures were burned, although it didn't state how many were homes.

Peeples Valley residents to the north got to return home on the Fourth of July. YCSO officials say two structures burned there.

Arizona Public Service is estimating it could finish restoring electrical power to Yarnell as early as Sunday.

Fire authorities have stated that Yarnell needs to have safe utilities in place before evacuees can return home.

Approximately 80 APS employees are helping to replace 80 to 100 power poles and 25 to 30 transformers, spokesman Damon Gross said.

"We are essentially rebuilding the system in Yarnell," he said. The work started late Wednesday afternoon and about one-third is complete, he said Friday afternoon.

The UniSource Energy Services gas company has completed about 20 percent of its repair work, Jerome Macdonald, deputy incident commander for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team, said during the fire's Friday briefing off Hays Ranch Road and Highway 89 in Peeples Valley.

Gas company crews are inspecting propane tanks at homes in addition to natural gas that the company supplies to its customers, and is is inspecting all tanks for leaks and damage from the fire.

The fire was at 90 percent containment Friday evening. Officials don't expect it to grow from about 8,400 acres, and they hope to fully contain it by July 12. Lightning ignited it on June 28 just southwest of Yarnell.

"We still have work to do on the north," Macdonald said. "That is what the hotshot crews are doing. They are securing that (fire) line, taking care of hotspots. We will continue to have the helicopter here."

Reporter Ken Hedler contributed to this story.

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