A plane drops retardant on the lightning-borne Yarnell Hill fire to help protect the Double Bar A Ranch near Peeples Valley, Arizona on Sunday, June 30, 2013.

Arizona Wildfire Kills 19 Elite Firefighters

President Obama issues statement calling fallen the 'finest people you'll ever meet.'

A plane drops retardant on the lightning-borne Yarnell Hill fire to help protect the Double Bar A Ranch near Peeples Valley, Arizona on Sunday, June 30, 2013.

A plane drops retardant on the lightning-borne Yarnell Hill fire to help protect the Double Bar A Ranch near Peeples Valley, Arizona on Sunday, June 30, 2013.

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A fast-moving wildfire in central Arizona that has scorched thousands of acres and forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes has also killed 19 elite firefighters, state forestry officials confirmed on Sunday.

[PHOTOS: Storms, Wildfires Tear Across U.S.]

The firefighters killed were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots team, a crew run by the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona that is known for battling large blazes. The Yarnell Hill fire, as it is being called, started on Friday with a lightning strike, according to ABC News. By late Sunday, the wildfire had burned more than 6,000 acres and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate from Yarnell, a town of about 700 located 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

According to the crew's website, its members are put through "rigorous physical and mental training" and are regularly exposed to "extreme environmental conditions" to train them to work on a variety of fires.

 

Prescott Fire chief Dan Fraijo said at a news conference on Sunday that it is unclear what caused the incident, but that he would have more information early on Monday.

[READ: Colorado Wildfire Burns Thousands of Homes, Kills 2]

"We're an organization and city that's in grief," Fraijo said.

Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, told The Arizona Republic that the firefighters were found in an area with several fire shelters, which are used as a last resort to avoid fires as they blow over. Some members of the crew were found inside the shelters, while others were found outside.

"It's a dark day," said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman, according to The Arizona Republic.

A twentieth firefighter from the team survived the fire and was rushed to Maricopa County Medical Center, a local CBS affiliate reported.

Fraijo said at the news conference that the fire is considered one of the worst, if not the worst, in Arizona's history.

"We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet," he said.

[MORE: Photos Tell of Active Wildfire Season]

President Barack Obama praised the firefighters as "heroes" who "selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet" and pledged that the federal government would remain in contact with local officials to lend support.

"Today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy," Obama said in a statement.

Sen. John McCain, R-Az., called the loss "devastating," and "a reminder of the grave risks" firefighters take each day.

"Their sacrifice will never be forgotten," he said in a statement.

The Arizona Republic reported that family and friends of the firefighters were gathering at a local middle school Sunday night as they heard confirmation of the deaths.

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Juliann Ashcraft was watching the news with her four children, when she learned that her husband was one of the firefighters killed, The Arizona Republic reported.

"They died heroes," she said. "And we'll miss them. We love them."

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