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Arizona Wildfire Kills 19 Firefighters; Deadliest In Decades

In what is being called the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least 30 years, 19 firefighters died in Arizona Sunday after an out-of-control blaze trapped them. They had been forced to use temporary shelters in an attempt to survive.

Nearly all of those killed were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group based in Prescott, Ariz., that uses rigorous training to prepare for fighting wildfires. They are frequently deployed to the front lines of efforts against the blazes.

The fire, dubbed the Yarnell Hill fire after it sprang into life Friday near Yarnell, a central Arizona town that's about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, has destroyed an estimated 200 homes. It grew quickly and erratically, spreading from 2,000 acres to 6,000 acres as of late Sunday night.

Monday morning, the local Daily Courier said simply, "Prescott is mourning."

The loss has led to the creation of a Facebook page honoring those killed by the fire over the weekend. As of Monday morning, more than 100,000 people had liked the page, with many people, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, writing in with their condolences.

Hotshot crews often have about 20 members. One survivor from the Granite Mountain team had been working elsewhere, according to reports. Cut off from safety, the firefighters tried to use personal emergency shelters -- sort of a cross between a tent and a sleeping bag -- to survive.

"Emotionally, we're devastated. We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet," Prescott fire chief Dan Fraijo says. "I mean, right now, we're in crisis."

Incident Commander Mike Reichling explains some of what made the Yarnell fire so dangerous, as ABC 15 reports:

"This fire was very radical in its behavior, the fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south, it turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon," he said. "That's what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels."

The Arizona Republic puts the loss in historic perspective, reporting, "The Sunday incident is believed to be the deadliest firefighting toll in a wildfire since 1933, and the deadliest single event for firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks."

The group that suffered tragedy Sunday had worked on the nearby Doce Fire in June, according to the Courier. The group also fought fires in New Mexico.

In a statement issued by the White House early Monday, President Obama called the fallen firefighters heroes.

Here's the president's statement:

"Yesterday, nineteen firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. They were heroes -- highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet. In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need. But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy."

Officials are promising an investigation into the tragedy. Yarnell Hill is one of several wildfires currently burning in America; NPR's Fire Forecast map keeps track of reported wildfires.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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