Nineteen Firefighters Killed Battling Arizona Blaze

A firefighter watches flames grow after setting a backburn in an attempt to control a raging wildfire.
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A firefighter watches flames grow after setting a backburn in an attempt to control a raging wildfire.

A team of 19 firefighters were killed battling a fast-moving wildfire that has forced the evacuation of two small towns in central Arizona on Sunday, fire officials said.

The firefighters perished in the so-called Yarnell Hill Fire, near the small town of Yarnell about 80 miles (128 km) northwest of Phoenix, the U.S. Wildland Fire Aviation service said in a Facebook post.

"It has been confirmed that 19 wildland firefighters have lost their lives on the Yarnell Hill fire Arizona," the post said, adding that the agency was asking "for prayers for the families and friends of these brave men and women."

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Art Morrison of the Arizona State Forestry Commission told CNN the firefighters, members of an elite "hot shot" team, lost their lives Sunday afternoon when they were overtaken by swiftly moving flames.

"It was a hand crew, a hot shot crew. In normal circumstances, when you're digging fire lines, you make sure you have a good escape route, and you have a safety zone set up. Evidently, their safety zone wasn't big enough, and the fire just overtook them. By the time the other firefighters got in, they didn't survive," Morrison said.

The blaze has charred about 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands since erupting Friday. Heat wave conditions have plagued the Southwest, prompting the evacuation of scores of homes near Yarnell, fire officials said.

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Local television news footage showed an unbroken line of flames stretching along a ridgeline, sending gray brown smoke billowing into the evening sky.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley, alerting residents through reverse 911 emergency calls to homes and sending sheriff's deputies door to door, according to the InciWeb fire news site of the U.S. Forest Service.

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The two towns are home to roughly 1,000 people.

The Daily Courier Prescott newspaper said the dead were members of the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots team.