Firefighters make progress against deadly Arizona blaze

PHOENIX Fri Jul 5, 2013 6:36pm EDT

A burned home is seen in an unidentified neighborhood west of Highway 89 in Yarnell, Arizona July 3, 2013. REUTERS/Todd Tamcsin

A burned home is seen in an unidentified neighborhood west of Highway 89 in Yarnell, Arizona July 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Todd Tamcsin

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Crews in central Arizona made steady progress on Friday toward containing the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 80 years, which killed 19 firefighters last weekend, officials said.

Officials said they have contained 80 percent of the wind-whipped, 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill fire, which has destroyed 114 buildings, many of them homes, since it was sparked by lightning on June 28.

Weather forecasts called for cooler temperatures, which should help firefighters working to fully extinguish the blaze, about 70 miles from Phoenix.

"We had a really good day yesterday and things are in place ... to have good success today," deputy incident commander Jerome McDonald told a news conference.

Officials said most of the hundreds of area residents were still unable to return home. McDonald said considerable work must be done before gas and electricity service can be restored.

Nineteen firefighters in a specially trained unit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed while battling the blaze. It was the greatest loss of life from a wildfire since 1933, when at least 25 men died in 1933 battling the Griffith Park fire.

A memorial service to honor the 19 firefighters is scheduled for Tuesday at an arena in Prescott Valley, Arizona. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to attend. Officials plan to set up an overflow area to handle the crowd, expected to exceed the arena's seating capacity of nearly 5,000.

The firefighters' bodies will be taken in a procession from the medical examiner's office in Phoenix to Prescott on Sunday, the Prescott Fire Department said.

Federal investigators are probing the reasons for the deaths of the 19 firefighters who were overcome as they tried to battle the fast-moving blaze on rugged terrain.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Gregorio)

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