Nineteen firefighters died Sunday while battling a fast-moving wildfire in Arizona — the nation’s most destructive wildfire disaster in 80 years.
The firefighters were overtaken by the blaze in Yarnell Hill, which is about 85 miles northwest of Pheonix. They were part of an elite squad responsible for setting up barriers up close to the fire.
“Our entire crew was lost,” said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo Sunday night. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. Right now, we’re in crisis.”
President Barack Obama, who is currently preparing to travel from Tanzania from South Africa, released a statement Monday calling the firefighters heroes.
"Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters,” Obama wrote. "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.”
"These are the guys that will go out there with 40, 50 pounds of equipment and walk five miles," Fraijo told the press Sunday. "They'll sleep out there as they try to develop fire lines."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called Sunday “as dark a day as I can remember.”
Dry conditions and gusting winds fed the wildfire. An estimated 200 homes were destroyed in Yarnell and Glen Isla.
The number of firefighters killed in 2013 is now 62, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In 2012, 83 firefighters died on duty.
"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," Brewer said. "When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind."