The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

AP story section

July 2, 2013

The climate context behind the deadly Arizona wildfire

The deadly Yarnell Hill Fire continued to rage out of control Monday, a day after the flames fanned by erratic winds and temperatures topping 100°F overwhelmed a team of elite firefighters, killing 19 of the 20-member crew. The fire has burned about 200 homes and has burned through at least 8,400 acres — more than quadrupling in size since it began on June 28, according to news reports.

The deaths of the Prescott, Ariz.-based “Granite Mountain Hotshots” was the worst wildland firefighting disaster since a 1933 wildfire killed 25 firefighters in Los Angeles. It was the largest loss of firefighters in the U.S. since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Until Sunday, Arizona had suffered 22 wildland firefighting deaths since 1955, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

A lightning strike is the suspected cause of the blaze, and a brutal heat wave in the West, combined with bone-dry conditions, likely aided its spread. The high temperature at Prescott on Sunday was in the triple digits. The forecast for Monday called for high temperatures to hover near the century mark, with continued low humidity.

Thunderstorms near the fire are a suspected cause of the erratic behavior of the flames on Sunday, when the firefighting crew was forced to deploy their last-resort fire shelters to try to deflect the flames.

The Yarnell Hill fire, like other wildfires in the West right now, is taking place in the context of one of the most extreme heat waves on record in the region, as well as a long-running drought. While the contributors to specific fires are varied and include natural weather and climate variability as well as human factors, such as arson, a draft federal climate report released in January found that manmade climate change, along with other factors, has already increased the overall risk of wildfires in the Southwest.

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