PRESCOTT, Arizona (Reuters) - Firefighters gained ground on Tuesday for the first time against the sprawling blaze in central Arizona that killed 19 members of an elite "hotshots" crew over the weekend in the worst loss of life in a U.S. wildfire in 80 years, officials said.
While the blaze remained dangerous and unpredictable, it was no longer raging out of control, and firefighters had managed by sundown to achieve the first measure of containment around its perimeter, 8 percent, officials for the firefighting command team said.
"Crews are making good progress on the fire ... We're feeling optimistic right now," said Carrie Dennett, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Forestry Division.
"We gained some ground ... it's been a pretty good day, and the fire has stayed mostly parked where it was 24 hours ago," said Jim Whittington, a spokesman for the incident commander.
The blaze, one of dozens of wildfires burning across the western United States, turned deadly on Sunday when 19 firefighters from a specially trained outfit called the Granite Mountain Hotshots were suddenly outflanked and engulfed by wind-whipped flames in a matter of seconds.
The tragedy marks the highest death toll among firefighters or civilians from a U.S. wildland blaze since at least 25 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise, Idaho.
A 20th member of the hotshots team who was acting as lookout and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew on higher ground, survived unscathed but was "very distraught" and has declined to speak to the media, according to Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward.
Ignited on Friday by lightning, the blaze has blackened some 8,400 acres of dense, tinder-dry chaparral, oak scrub and grasslands as it roared largely unchecked in its first four days.
Authorities have estimated that 50 to 200 structures, most of them homes, have been destroyed in and around the tiny town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. But they said more time was needed to arrive at a firmer figure on property losses.
From the air on Monday evening, extensive fire damage was visible in the western outskirts of Yarnell but the center of town looked relatively untouched.
Yarnell and the adjacent community of Peeples Valley, which together are home to roughly 1,000 people, remained evacuated.
Fire command spokesman Dennis Godfrey told Reuters the so-called Yarnell Hills fire was posing no immediate additional threat to property in the area.
However, the blaze remained a formidable challenge, he said, adding, "We're considering it far from being over. It's far from being a mop-up operation." Full containment of the fire is not expected for at least another 10 days, officials said.
A Reuters photographer who flew over the fire zone on Monday evening reported that little fire activity could be seen from the air, with a relatively small patch of low-level burning discernable on the area's eastern edge.
Whittington said powerful, erratic winds that earlier had stoked the fire and caused volatile changes in its direction subsided on Monday night and Tuesday, helping some 600 firefighters battling the blaze finally make some headway.
He said fire managers were still concerned about thunderstorms that appeared to be moving into the area late on Tuesday, bringing the possibility of a renewed burst of strong, unruly winds.
Fire incident commander Clay Templin told displaced residents at a community meeting that evacuees would probably not be allowed to return to their homes before Saturday.
The fallen Arizona firefighters were based in the town of Prescott, about 30 miles northeast of the fire zone. Residents there paid tribute to the 19 men, most of them in their 20s, in a memorial service on Monday evening and a candlelight vigil on Tuesday night.
A makeshift shrine has sprung up outside a Prescott fire house, drawing dozens of people who paid their respects by leaving flowers, flags, condolence cards, photos and mementos at the site.
The remains of the firefighters Sunday were transported in a cortege-like procession of 19 coroner's vans to the medical examiner's office in Phoenix for autopsies.
The exact circumstances of the disaster were under investigation, but fire officials said the doomed hotshots team appeared to have been following proper procedures.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Christopher Wilson)
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