YARNELL, AZ - A mountain highway reopened Wednesday through the area where 19 firefighters died protecting a former gold-rush town, while fire crews stopped the progress of another blaze burning in eastern Arizona.
That lightning-sparked fire south of Kearny ignited Monday and grew to about 518 acres by Wednesday when officials announced most evacuations had been lifted and containment reached 50 percent.
One home burned on the outskirts of Kearny, and firefighters said they had stopped the blaze's progression.
"There will still be some smoke out there, just some interior pockets of fuel burning, but everything looks good," said Carrie Dennett of the Arizona State Forestry Division.
Meanwhile, the Yarnell Hill Fire, where 19 members of the Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots died, remained at 90 percent containment after burning about 13 square miles. Estimates of how many structures were destroyed ranged from 114 to 129, but officials couldn't immediately provide an exact figure. Residents were allowed back in this week, and the road through the area reopened to the public on Wednesday. Fire officials were hoping to achieve full containment by Friday.
Jerry Florman, 63, and her husband, Kurt, 72, headed back to see what remained of their Yarnell home on Monday after being evacuated nearly a week earlier.
As the couple turned the corner onto their street, the reality of the devastation hit, Jerry Florman wrote in a column for The Arizona Republic.
"Half of the homes on our street are gone," she wrote.
"The fire burned through our acreage thoroughly, leaving behind a moonscape," Florman added. "The house itself is a large pile of rubble ... Very few things will be recovered from this devastation."
The first funerals for the fallen firefighters began Wednesday, a day after thousands attended a memorial service for the men at a minor league hockey arena in nearby Prescott Valley.
The event also was attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Sen. John McCain and other members of the state's congressional delegation.
Officials also announced Wednesday the establishment of the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial Overlook along Highway 89, at a point where a flagpole erected at the site where the men died can be seen in the distance.
The elite crew died June 30 when a wind-fueled, out-of-control fire overran them as they tried to protect Yarnell from the blaze. Only one member of the team who was serving as a lookout survived.
"In a fierce and terrifying encounter with extreme danger, they stood their ground, like the heroes they were, and fought for their community," McCain said on the U.S. Senate floor Wednesday. "While they did not come home to the people who loved them so much and who will miss them always, I firmly believe we will see them again in the better world that is to come. "
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