Wildfire rages in Arizona; kills 19 firefighters

Updated
Firefighters move away from the Yarnell Hill Fire, near the town of Yarnell, Ariz., about 80 miles from Phoenix in this June 30, 2013, handout photo....
Firefighters move away from the Yarnell Hill Fire, near the town of Yarnell, Ariz., about 80 miles from Phoenix in this June 30, 2013, handout photo....
Arizona State Forestry Division handout/Reuters

By Ian Johnston, Andrew Rafferty and Erin McClam, NBC News

Only a “perfect storm” of conditions could have overtaken the elite team that lost 19 men battling a wildfire in Arizona, authorities said Monday as they came to grips with the deadliest single event for firefighters since Sept. 11.

The fire, raging on a hot and gusty Sunday afternoon, took out all but one member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a team known for its extensive training and demanding fitness regimen.

The men were killed about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, near the town of Yarnell. It was the biggest loss of firefighter life since 340 died at the World Trade Center. It was the worst in a wildfire since 1933, when 29 were killed in Los Angeles.

“We don’t know exactly what happened,” Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department, told NBC’s TODAY. “I can tell you that this is a very elite group of men. I can tell you that it had to be the perfect storm in order for this to happen.”

Authorities stressed that they were still investigating, but Mary Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for Prescott National Forest, said it appeared the 19 were engaged in a “direct attack” — getting close to the fire and trying to create a break to starve it of fuel.

She described the maneuver as “one foot in the black and one foot in the green,” and said it was only done when the flames were 5 feet high or less: “They’re right up against it.”

The conditions Sunday were extreme, with unusual wind, she said, and authorities were checking what other factors might have contributed.

This is an excerpt of a story that first appeared on NBCNews.com. Read the full story here.

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Wildfire rages in Arizona; kills 19 firefighters

Updated