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19 firefighters die tackling blaze

A raging wildfire in the US has killed 19 firefighters, including 18 members of an elite specialist team, trapped in the centre of the blaze.

Only one of the "hotshot" squad escaped the flames after a sudden wind storm stoked the blaze in an Arizona forest because he was moving their truck at the time. Another firefighter died along with them.

The fire, started by lightning, had ballooned to cover 13 square miles and destroyed dozens of homes and sent hundreds fleeing from Yarnell, a town of 700 about 85 miles from Phoenix. Residents huddled in area shelters and restaurants, watching their homes burn on TV as flames lit up the night sky in the forest above the town.

It is unknown how the crew became trapped with no escape route as they attempted to save Yarnell from the fast-growing blaze. The team had spent recent weeks fighting fires in New Mexico and Prescott before being called to Yarnell, entering the smoky wilderness over the weekend with backpacks, chainsaws and other heavy gear used to remove brush and trees.

"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city," fire chief Dan Fraijo said. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."

President Obama added that the deaths were a heart-breaking reminder that emergency personnel put their lives on the line every day while rushing towards danger.

Speaking from Africa, the president said America's thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those killed. He added: "We are heartbroken about what happened."

He said his administration is prepared to help Arizona investigate how the deaths happened, and he predicted the incident will force government leaders to answer broader questions about how they handle increasingly destructive and deadly wildfires.

Hotshot crews go through specialised training and often are deployed soon after a fire breaks out. Sometimes they hike for miles into the wilderness to cut lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.

As a last-ditch effort at survival, members are trained to dig into the ground and cover themselves with the tent-like shelter made of fire-resistant material, Mr Fraijo said. The hope in that desperate situation is that the fire will burn over them and they will survive. "It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions," Mr Fraijo added.


From Belfast Telegraph