PHOENIX (REUTERS) - A solemn procession of 19 white hearses carrying the remains of firefighters killed battling an Arizona wildfire travelled to the crew's hometown of Prescott from Phoenix on Sunday, accompanied by police motorcycle outriders as onlookers lined the route, saluting and waving American flags in honor of the fallen men.
Bagpipers played a dirge and an honor guard of firefighters and police officers stood to attention as the caravan pulled slowly away from the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's office shortly after midday.
The convoy passed beneath a large US flag suspended from crossed fire ladders over a street leading to the Arizona capitol flanked with fire trucks as it headed for Prescott Valley, about 160 km north of Phoenix.
The firefighters were from the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots team. They became trapped when their position was overrun by flames from the Yarnell Hill fire, southwest of Prescott, on June 30.
"Knowing that they risked their lives and paid the ultimate sacrifice, it's an honor for us to be here and know that we are with them ... they will not be alone," Captain Larry Nunez of the Phoenix Fire Department told Reuters outside the medical examiner's office.
Hundreds of residents, braving the 40 Celsius heat, stood at curbside as the hearses passed by, each bearing the name of a firefighter who lost his life.
"They gave up their lives to save other lives," said onlooker Richard Galaviz, his voice unsteady with emotion.
"The least I can do is come here and pay my respects so that they can go back home and get rest."
The cortege passed through Yarnell, the tiny scrub- and chaparral-ringed town the firemen lost their lives trying to protect, before heading on to their hometown of Prescott, where crowds filled the sidewalks.
The convoy's final destination was the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's office in Prescott Valley, 16 km east of Prescott.
The lightning-sparked blaze has blackened some 3,400 hectares of rugged, brush-covered hillsides and ravines since it erupted on June 28. The fire was reported 90 percent contained on Sunday.
A memorial service to honor the firefighters is scheduled for Tuesday at an arena in Prescott Valley. US Vice President Joe Biden is expected to attend, as well as firefighters from departments across the United States.
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 deaths marked the greatest loss of life from a US wildland blaze since at least 25 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.
Federal investigators are probing the reasons for the deaths. The fire crew was overcome as they tried to battle the blaze whipped up by winds that suddenly changed direction, engulfing their position in flames.
Investigators expect to release provisional findings by early September.