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Planes called before ‘Hotshots’ fire deaths

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POSTED July 12, 2013 10:08 p.m.

PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona wildfire was so out of control because of winds from a nearby thunderstorm that officials asked for half the available Western U.S. air tanker fleet nearly an hour before 19 members of a Hotshot crew were killed, records obtained by The Associated Press Friday show.

The records from the federal Bureau of Land Management show Arizona officials asked for six heavy air tankers at 4:08 p.m. on June 30, about 50 minutes after high winds from a nearby thunderstorm began driving the wildfire toward the small town of Yarnell.

National Weather Service officials issued a wind warning to fire managers at 3:26 p.m. that day. The firefighters radioed that they were trapped and getting into the emergency fire shelters at 4:47 p.m.

The six planes were never deployed or arrived because of the limited number of tankers in the nation's aerial firefighting fleet and the dangerous weather conditions at the time. Fire officials said even if they had been available winds were so strong they couldn't have been used to save the firefighters' lives.

But the fact that so many planes were requested provides more proof that firefighters were facing an increasingly dangerous scenario. There were only 12 heavy tankers available that day in the Western United States.

"It is significant, and it makes an exclamation point to the situation, doesn't it," said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Division of Forestry, which was managing the fire.

The crew was found about 500 yards from a ranch house they had designated as they safety zone. The 20th member of the crew was acting at a spotter and escaped unharmed when the fire roared into the area from the north.

The agency asked for the six heavy tankers when the thunderstorm started kicking up fire activity but they didn't get them because none were available. The heavy tankers are used to lay lines of fire retardant to prevent a fire's spread and protect ground crews.

The request came nearly an hour before out-of-control flames trapped the 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshots and led to the nation's worst wildland fire tragedy since 1933.

Officials can't say why the fire crew was still on the mountain above the town more than an hour after the winds shifted about 180 degrees and brought the fire back toward them and nearly an hour after such a large tanker request.

"We don't know," Paxon said. "That's something that the serious incident investigation team is looking into."

A national team of investigators is working to understand more about the firefighters' deaths and is expected to finish an initial report in about two months.

Despite the size of the order and what the state Forestry Division says was the dire danger to the town, there was no sign crews were in immediate danger. There also wasn't any sense of urgency conveyed when the air tankers were ordered, federal officials said.

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