Firefighters move away from the Yarnell Hill Fire, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix
Arizona State Forestry Division/Landov
07/01/2013 at 06:35 AM EDT
An elite crew of firefighters trained to battle the nation's fiercest wildfires was overtaken by an out-of-control blaze in Arizona, killing 19 members as they tried to protect themselves from the flames under fire-resistant shields.
It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. in decades.
The lightning-sparked fire, which spread to at least 2,000 acres amid triple-digit temperatures, also destroyed 200 homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. Residents huddled in shelters and bars, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.
The disaster Sunday afternoon all but wiped out the 20-member Hotshot fire crew based in nearby Prescott, leaving the city's fire department reeling.
"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said at a news conference Sunday evening. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."
The National Fire Protection Association website lists the last wildland fire to kill more firefighters as the 1933 Griffith Park fire of Los Angeles, which killed 29. The most firefighters – 340 – were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, according to the website.
Most people had evacuated from the town, and no injuries or other deaths were reported.
President Barack Obama called the 19 firefighters heroes and said in a statement that the federal government was assisting state and local officials.
"This is as dark a day as I can remember," Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. "It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: fighting fires is dangerous work."
Two hundred firefighters were working on the fire Sunday, and several hundred more were expected to arrive Monday.
The Red Cross has opened two shelters in the area — at Yavapai College in Prescott and at the Wickenburg High School gym.