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US firefighters pause to reflect on job's dangers

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YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) — Hundreds of firefighters battling a blaze outside the mountain town of Yarnell came off the line Wednesday to salute a procession of fire vehicles that had been left by 19 elite Hotshot crew members killed in the line of duty.

The firefighters and law enforcement gathered along a highway to honor the Prescott-based unit deployed last weekend. The vehicles were driven by fellow Prescott firefighters. One of the trucks held backpacks, water jugs and coolers. Another was emblazoned with the group's motto, in Latin: "To be, rather than to seem."

Fire crews across the U.S. planned to also pause throughout the day to remember the Granite Mountain Hotshots and recognize the dangers firefighters face, said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the Southwest Incident Command Team.

"One of the things that defines the entire wildland firefighting community is we don't forget," he said, adding that crews pay tribute every year to those who have died in the nation's worst firefighting disasters.

"And we will remember this one," he said, his voice shaking. "It's tough."

In the biggest loss of U.S. firefighters since 9/11, violent wind gusts on Sunday turned what was believed to be a manageable lightning-ignited forest fire in the town of Yarnell into a death trap that left no escape for the team of Hotshots, most of them in the prime of their lives.

The last investigators of the nine-member team charged with finding out what went wrong were briefed Wednesday after their arrival. The investigation will include examining radio logs, the fire site and weather reports. They'll also surely talk to the sole survivor of the blaze, the lookout who warned his fellow firefighters and friends that the wildfire was switching directions and heading straight for them.

Nearly 600 firefighters are fighting the blaze, which has burned about 13 square miles. Hundreds were evacuated and crews erected perimeters around the homes.

The fire remained 8 percent contained Wednesday, but fire officials expected that to grow by the day's end. The hope is to allow residents back into their homes over the weekend and contain the fire by July 12.

The number of destroyed homes and structures stood at 129 in the latest tally released Wednesday by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office. Officials earlier had provided varying estimates ranging from 50 to 250 homes and other buildings lost in in Yarnell, a town of about 700 people. Authorities were able to get a better estimate after taking a closer look at the scene.

Reporters also were allowed into a section of the fire area, where charred pine trees resembled burnt toothpicks sticking out of the hillsides.

The ground was covered in a blackened patchwork, and the higher mountains behind the hills were speckled by pink retardant. The yards and driveways of a few isolated homes were marked by the spots of controlled fires set by firefighters to beat back the blaze.

The area was dusty and smoky but there were no visible flames.

Fire officials did not take journalists near where the bodies of the 19 firefighters were found nor did they answer requests for a description of the spot.

Only one member of the crew, identified Tuesday as 21-year-old lookout Brendan McDonough, survived. After radioing others about the growing danger, McDonough made it to safety, while the rest were overtaken by the blaze.

"He did exactly what he was supposed to," said Wade Ward, who implored the media to respect McDonough's privacy as he and the families mourn. "He's trying to deal with the same things that we're all trying to deal with, but you can understand how that's compounded being there on the scene."

McDonough was among more than 3,000 people at a public memorial service Tuesday evening in Prescott. He sat in a special section with victims' families and was not accessible to reporters. Security escorted the group out when the event ended.

The team of investigators, comprised of forest managers and safety experts, was expected to release a preliminary report in days.

"We have a responsibility to those lost and their loved ones, as well as to current and future wildland firefighters, to understand what happened as completely as possible," Arizona State Forester Scott Hunt said in a statement.

Safety standards for wildland firefighters were toughened nearly 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on Colorado's Storm King Mountain, and investigators found a number of errors in the way the blaze was fought.

In what fire authorities said was an eerily similar situation to the Arizona blaze, a rapid change in weather sent winds raging on Storm King in Colorado, creating 100-foot flames. Firefighters were unable to escape, as a wall of fire raced up a hillside.

Under the toughened policies, no firefighters should be deployed unless they have a safe place to retreat. They must also be continuously informed of changing weather and post lookouts.

Sunday's tragedy raised questions of whether the Hotshot crew should have been pulled out much earlier and whether all the usual precautions would have made any difference in the face of triple-digit temperatures, erratic winds and tinderbox conditions that caused the fire to explode.

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Associated Press writers Michael R. Blood and Bob Christie in Phoenix, Brian Skoloff in Yarnell, Hannah Dreier in Yarnell, and Martin Di Caro in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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