PRESCOTT, Arizona, July 1, 2013 (ENS) – Fighting the lightning-sparked Yarnell Hill wildfire near Prescott late Sunday, 19 firefighters died in the line of duty. The 19 firefighters, all men, were part of the elite Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew of Prescott.

Fire officials say the Hotshot Crew had to deploy their fire shelters after strong winds pushed the fast-moving blaze over their position. They died in the worst wildland firefighter tragedy in the United States since 25 people died in the Los Angeles Griffith Park Fire in 1933.

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The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew (Photo courtesy City of Prescott)

A procession of white vans carried the bodies of the fallen firefighters to Phoenix, where the Maricopa County Medical Examiner will conduct autopsies.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Senator from Arizona John McCain both called the men brave heroes. In a statement released today as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said, “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.”

“In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest,” said the President. “The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need. But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said, “The word ‘hero’ can be overused, but in this case the word fails to do justice to these firefighters who stood in the path of a roaring inferno to protect their communities.”

“Today, 58 Interior Department employees are on the ground fighting the Yarnell fire,” said Jewell, “and we stand ready to provide whatever further assistance the state of Arizona and local communities need to extinguish the blaze and protect lives and property.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer mourned, “This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters. They were battling the Yarnell Fire, near Prescott, when the fast-moving blaze overtook their position.”

The only member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots to escape death was a man who was moving a crew truck when the blaze reached his fellow firefighters. The deadly incident is under investigation.

“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,” said Governor Brewer.

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Yarnell Hill Fire as seen from I-17 (Photo courtesy Inciweb)

An estimated 200 homes and many businesses were burned to the ground as the fire quadrupled in size overnight, spreading to nearly 8,400 acres today from 2,000 acres Sunday.

Started by lightning on Friday afternoon, the Yarnell Hill fire is burning in chaparral and grass about 30 miles southwest of Prescott, off Hwy 89.

At 4:00 pm Sunday the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office advised residents in the communities of Peeples Valley and Yarnell to evacuate their homes. Within a few hours, strong winds out of the north pushed the fire front into Yarnell and Glen Isla, a community south of Yarnell.

The temperature in the area hit 97 degrees today with humidity at 18 percent and the winds out of the southwest at five miles per hour and gusting higher. Forecasters warn that fire behavior may become erratic again today because of winds generated by thunderstorms, high temperatures and very dry fuels.

About 400 firefighters are working to control the “extreme fire behavior” of the Yarnell Hill Fire under the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, headed by Incident Commander Clay Templin.

The wildfire is still raging out of control, with zero degrees of containment, fire officials said this afternoon.

Air tankers will be dropping fire retardant on the perimeter of the fire as needed and five helicopters assigned to the fire will be dropping water on hot spots in support of the firefighters.

State Highway 89 is closed from south of Yarnell to mile marker 283 north of Peeples Valley. The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office has three different road blocks at the following: the junctions of Highway 89 and Hayes Ranch Road, Hayes Ranch Road and Sickles Ranch Road, and at Buckhorn and Frontier Road.

Red Cross shelters are open at Yavapai Community College in Prescott at 928-717-8210 and at the Wickenburg High School in Wickenburg at 928-446-1766. People and small animals are welcome at both shelters. A large animal shelter is being set up at the Hidden Springs Ranch on Hwy 89 SW of Hayes Ranch Road.