Nineteen elite firefighters were killed in a raging Arizona wildfire stoked by record heat and high winds, marking the greatest loss of life among firefighters from a single U.S. wildland blaze in 80 years.
The Prescott, Arizona, Fire Department crew was killed on Sunday when a fast-moving wildfire they were battling 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.
He called the deaths of the crew, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, "devastating." The cause of the deaths was unknown and 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 he did not know the circumstances that led to the 19 deaths.
He said one member of the 20-man crew had been in a separate location and survived. There was no immediate information on his condition.
"We teach our people to be safe, to take safety precautions. Sometimes, unfortunately, it just doesn't work out," he told reporters at a news conference after darkness fell.
He said the unpredictable weather paired with tinder-dry conditions can be a volatile mix for those on the front lines of wildfires.
The Hotshots were highly trained firefighters with tough standards of fitness. Firefighters were required to take an 80-hour critical training course and refresher yearly and offered fire safety courses, according to the group's website.
Each firefighter had to pass a test of carrying a work pack, as well as run 1.5 miles in 10 minutes 35 seconds and complete 40 situps in 60 seconds, 25 pushups in 60 seconds, and seven pullups.
"Our common bond is our love of hard work and arduous adventure," the group's website said.
The blaze, called the Yarnell Hills fire, was ignited by lightning on Friday. It has charred more than 2,000 acres of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands, fire officials said.
It has been stoked by strong, dry winds and a heat wave that has baked the region in triple-digit (more than 40 Celsius) temperatures.
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.
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 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 National Fire Protection Association records.
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 deaths brought an outpouring of condolences on Sunday from political leaders, including President Barack Obama, who is on an official trip to Africa.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."