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Nineteen firefighters die battling US blaze

All but one member of elite Granite Mountain Hotshots trapped and killed by fast-moving wildfire in Arizona.

Last Modified: 01 Jul 2013 20:53
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Nineteen of a crew of 20 elite firefighters were killed in a storm of wildfire stoked by record heat and high winds in Arizona -  the biggest loss of life in a US wildland blaze in 80 years.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots, from the the Prescott Fire Department, were killed on Sunday when the fast-moving wildfire trapped them near Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

"It had to be a perfect storm in order for this to happen," Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward told local media on Monday. "Their situational awareness and their training was at such a high level that it's unimaginable that this has even happened."

The blaze was raging unchecked on Monday after burning about 8,400 acres of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands. It was sparked by lightning on Friday, Arizona state fire officials said.

Ward said 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.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots.

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 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 US wildland blaze since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

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 says.

The Yarnell Hill fire has been stoked by strong, dry winds and a heat wave that has baked the western United States in more than 40C temperatures.

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