PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - As more details surface about the deadly Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, the mourning continues. Two of the 19 firefighters killed when a wall of flame overwhelmed them as they battled a wildfire in southern Arizona were Hemet natives, relatives and friends confirmed.
Chris MacKenzie and Billy Warnenke, both in their 20s, died Sunday near Yarnell, Arizona, while deployed with fellow firefighters from the Granite Mountain hotshots.
The crew was among 400 firefighters attempting to get containment lines around a brush fire. MacKenzie and Warnenke were both Hemet High School graduates--MacKenzie in 2001, Warneke in 2005.
While the families mourned, they were joined by firefighters all over the country, including in the Coachella Valley. "You know, whenever a tragedy like this happens, it affects the whole fire family greatly," said Palm Springs fire department Captain Robert Wright.
While Wright didn't know any of the firefighters personally, he says he understands the kind of danger the elite, highly-trained squad often put themselves in. "It's extremely dangerous," said Wright. "They hike in, they get in close proximity of these fires, they have a very dangerous job."
So close they must sometimes take extreme measures. All nineteen firefighters who died used their fire shelters, a tent-like contraption made of fire-resistant material. "This is a last resort effort to save your life," said Captain Wright. "It's basically an aluminum foil bag, basically like a pop tent."
The shelter is designed to reflect heat and trap cool breathable air inside for a few minutes while a wildfire burns over a person. But its success depends on the firefighters being in a cleared area away from fuels and not in the direct path of a raging inferno of heat and hot gasses, not the case in Yarnell. "It's hot, it's miserable inside," said Wright. "If you look at all the cases where this has been used by firefighters, they all say the same thing, they thought they were going to die once they were in it."
While officials investigate the death of the 19, the station in Thousand Palms lowered its flag to half-staff. A show of support for the families of the fallen, and a reminder that the firefighter family is by their sides. "They're not alone, we're all going through it," said Wright. "We all feel their pain and suffering."