PRESCOTT, Arizona (Reuters) - Nineteen elite Arizona firefighters were killed in a "perfect storm" of wildfire stoked by record heat and high winds in the biggest loss of life battling a U.S. wildland blaze in 80 years, officials said on Monday.
The crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots from the Prescott, Arizona, Fire Department was killed on Sunday when the fast-moving wildfire trapped them near Yarnell, a town about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
"It had to be a perfect storm in order for this to happen. Their situational awareness and their training was at such a high level that it's unimaginable that this has even happened," Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward told ABC's "Today" program.
The blaze is raging unchecked after burning about 8,400 acres of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands. It was sparked by lightning on Friday, Arizona state fire officials said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama joined a chorus of condolences over the deaths, whose exact cause was under investigation.
Ward told ABC's "Good Morning America" the men had put up fire shelters, a tent-like safety device designed to deflect heat and trap breathable air, in a last-ditch effort to survive.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said late on Sunday one member of the 20-man crew had been in a separate location and survived. There was no immediate information on his condition.
Rick McKenzie, 53, a bow hunter and ranch caretaker, said the fire had "exploded" on Sunday, with flames 30 to 40 feet high racing across an area of oak and brush and that he had warned the Hotshots about the dense oak woods where they would be working.
"I said, ‘If this fire sweeps down the mountain to the lower hills where all this thick brush is, it's going to blow up, guys, you need to watch it,'" said McKenzie, who had taken refuge at a Red Cross shelter at Yavapai College.
The Yarnell Hills fire marks the greatest loss of life among firefighters from a U.S. wildland blaze since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The association lists seven incidents in the United States during the past century that killed as many or more firefighters than on Sunday in Arizona. The costliest saw the deaths of 340 firefighters in the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
The Hotshots were highly trained firefighters with rigorous fitness standards. They were required to take an 80-hour critical training course and refresher yearly, according to the group's website.
"Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure," the website said.
The Yarnell Hill fire has been stoked by strong, dry winds and a heat wave that has baked the western United States in triple-digit (more than 40 Celsius) temperatures.
Temperatures are 10 degrees above average. The scorching heat is expected to last for the first part of the week, meteorologists said.
Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley. The two towns are southwest of Prescott and home to roughly 1,000 people.
The Red Cross said that 45 people had spent Sunday night in shelters from the fire.
A Yavapai County Sheriff's Office spokesman said on Sunday at least 200 structures had been destroyed, most of them in Yarnell, a community consisting largely of retirees. Fire officials said most of the buildings lost were homes.
The fire was one of dozens of wildfires in several western U.S. states in recent weeks. Experts have said the current fire season could be one of the worst on record.
The deaths brought an outpouring of condolences on Sunday from political leaders, including from President Obama, who is on an official trip to Africa.
In a statement, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called the deaths "one of our state's darkest, most devastating days."
She ordered state flags flown at half staff from Monday through Wednesday.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement: "This devastating loss is a reminder of the grave risks our firefighters take every day on our behalf in Arizona and in communities across this nation. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten."
(Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Sofina Mirza-Reid)
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