In the worst wildfire tragedy in three decades, 19 elite firefighters from Prescott, Arizona were killed last night while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. Lightning struck between Yarnell Hill and Peeples Valley on Friday, sparking a blaze that tripled in size on Sunday to engulf 6,000 acres of drought-stricken land northwest of Phoenix. “Our entire crew was lost,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told reporters Sunday night. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet. Right now, we’re in crisis.”

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The Granite Mountain Hot Shots were setting up a fuel break to contain the spread of fire when the wind suddenly shifted and overcame the entire team. The team had deployed their tent-like fire shelters in order to protect themselves from the flames.

The hot shot team made up nearly one quarter of the Prescott Fire Department’s crew. One member of the elite group of firefighters established in 2002 was working on another blaze elsewhere and survived.

“Crews died when the winds turned around and they were caught in a bad situation,” said Incident Commander Mike Reichling, according to abc15.

“This fire was very radical in its behavior, the fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind was coming out of the south, it turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon,” Reichling said.

“That’s what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels.”

President Obama released a statement calling the team “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.”

A small ranching and mining community with a population of just 645 in 2000, Yarnell has endured severe drought conditions for a decade. Nearly half of the town’s 500 structures have been scorched by the fire so far, according to Reichling, and approximately 600 people are under mandatory evacuation orders.

Another 200-250 firefighters are expected to join the 250 that are already battling the raging wildfire, which is zero percent contained. Four planes are also dousing the flames.

If you would like to offer your condolences or support to the families of the victims, please visit the Facebook page set up to memorialize them.

Via CNN, abc15

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