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Minn. DNR helicopter crew fighting Arizona fire

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A five-member Minnesota Department of Natural Resources crew and their Minnesota state contract helicopter are part of a mobilized army of crews trying get control of the Yarnell Fire in Arizona, a blaze that claimed the lives of 19 this week, KSTP reports.

The five were using the helicopter likely to either drop water or move equipment, and they could not immediately be reached for comment, a spokeswoman for the Interagency Fire Center based in Grand Rapids told the Star Tribune.

A separate team of about 20 Minnesotans are in New Mexico for other firefighting duties, the Star Tribune reported. Roughly 50 Minnesota firefighters from a variety of agencies could be on duty in other states at any given time during a traditional fire season, the newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, a Crookston, Minn., native who has spent 28 years with the Prescott, Ariz., Fire Department is mourning the loss of his 19 colleagues killed while fighting a wildfire Sunday. It was the worst loss of U.S. emergency workers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bloomberg noted.

As the Crookston Times reports, Jeff Knotek is transitioning from a firefighter's life to being a paramedic and nurse based in a hospital. He had just cleaned out his locker on Sunday morning. Later that day he learned of the deaths of the 19 "hotshots," the elite firefighting crew called in to battle the blaze near Yarnell, Arizona.

Knotek tells the Times he knew every one of the victims well. "We'd just had a big open house and barbecue to kind of kick off the season," he said. When he learned of their deaths, Knotek says he returned to the emergency operations center to help. That meant driving with police officers to notify family members.

The 19 deaths are the biggest loss of firefighters to a single blaze in the U.S. in 80 years, and Minnesota firefighters are mourning the loss along with their colleagues around the nation, WCCO reported. The Associated Press reports all of the victims had deployed personal emergency shelters that are fire-resistant, but were consumed by the flames nonetheless.

Minnesota DNR officials demonstrated to KARE 11 how the shelters work. Minnesota firefighters are trained each spring in how to use the fire shelters, which wildland firefighters carry on their hips, KARE noted.

The only member of the 20-man crew who survived was moving the unit's truck at the time that a sudden change of wind led to the tragedy.

All of the bodies were recovered. They were not officially identified, but CNN reports family members have confirmed several of the deaths.

The news left Arizona reeling. The AP says Gov. Jan Brewer's voice caught as she addressed residents and reporters at Prescott High School, saying "I know the pain that everyone is trying to overcome and deal with today."

President Obama spoke about the tragedy while traveling in Africa and other public officials offered condolences.

Knotek, a 1978 graduate of Crookston Central High School, made this request when interviewed by his hometown paper: "When they're putting that flag out up there in Crookston for the Fourth," he said, pausing for a moment to keep his composure. "Just ask them to remember those guys."

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