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19 of the finest: chief's tribute to firefighters killed in Arizona blaze

By Tim Walker in Los Angeles

The small town of Prescott in Arizona is in mourning for 19 firefighters from an elite crew killed in a devastating wildfire.

The continuing blaze in Yarnell, around 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, had burned more than 13 square miles by yesterday morning local time, forcing 600 people from their homes.

Just one member of Prescott's Hotshot crew survived the inferno on Sunday, because he was not with the other members of his team when they were trapped by the flames. The victims represent around 20% of the town's firefighting force.

Their average age was 22.

"The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is devastated by the magnitude of this incident," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told reporters. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet."

The Granite Mountain Hotshots, established in 2002, are one of about 100 such units in the US. Each Hotshot crew consists of around 20 members, who are the first sent in to contain a wildfire, by removing trees and brush to create protective fire-breaks between a blaze and the local population.

A recent profile in the Prescott Daily Courier described the Hotshots as "an elite ground firefighting crew known for their innovative problem-solving and history of safe, aggressive fire suppression".

The team is used to working in highly dangerous conditions, often hiking miles carrying heavy packs and chainsaws to battle fires in isolated areas.

Arizona state forestry spokesman Art Morrison said that officials lost contact with the unit at around 4.30pm on Sunday, after they were trapped by the unpredictable, fast-moving blaze. They had erected special, tent-like shelters as a last resort to try to protect themselves but, said Chief Fraijo, the shelters only offer around a 50% chance of survival. The men's bodies were later spotted from a helicopter.

The Yarnell Hill fire is thought to have been sparked by a lightning strike and is expected to destroy at least half of the town's 500 homes.

It began as a major heatwave struck, bringing temperatures in excess of 37.8C, and was reportedly exacerbated by winds of up to 40mph.

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