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Wildfire had to have been 'perfect storm' to kill 19 elite firefighters

July 1, 2013 at 2:22 PM ET

Video: Wade Ward, the public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department in Arizona, talks about the tragic loss of 19 firefighters in a massive wildfire, saying “it had to be the perfect storm in order for this to happen.”

The 19 firefighters who perished on Sunday in the worst wildfire tragedy involving firefighters in Arizona history were part of an elite unit, leaving family and peers reeling from the deaths of such a well-trained group of men.

“It’s devastating,’’ Prescott Fire Department spokesman Wade Ward told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Monday. “We don’t know exactly what happened. 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. Their situational awareness and their training is at such a high level that it’s unimaginable that this is even happening.”

The last wildfire to kill more firefighters was in Los Angeles in 1933, according to the National Fire Protection Association. This is the highest firefighter death toll in one event since the attacks of Sept. 11, according to FEMA.

The men who perished in the fire in Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday were part of the Prescott Hotshots team, an elite group of firefighters from the nearby city of Prescott sent to help cut off the blaze. “They were 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,’’ President Barack Obama said in a statement Monday.

“(Prescott Fire Department) Chief (Dan) Fraijo said it the best – they’re some of the best people that you would ever meet,’’ Ward said.

Video: Fanned by hot winds, a deadly blaze exploded out of control on Sunday in Arizona, overtaking 19 firefighters, 18 of them from the same elite Prescott, Ariz., Granite Mountain Hotshots team. NBC’s Miguel Almaguer reports.

No new details as to the causes and circumstances leading to the firefighters' deaths have been released and the investigation is ongoing, Fraijo said at a press conference Monday. Their bodies have been recovered and have been taken to medical examiners, Fraijo said.

The fire has already destroyed 200 homes, nearly half the town of Yarnell, and 400-plus firefighters are on hand to battle the blaze on Monday. It began on Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET from a lightning strike and continued to grow because of triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. The fire is now burning across 8,374 acres based on aerial confirmation and is still zero percent contained, Southwest Arizona Incident Management Team spokesperson Mary Rasmussen said at a press conference Monday.

Some of the firefighters were found inside a special fire shelter and others were not, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman told The Arizona Republic. The hotshot crew from Prescott consisted of 20 firefighters, and the only one who survived was a lookout who was posted on a nearby mountaintop. The names of the firefighters who lost their lives are expected to be released later on Monday via a press release.

"To the friends and family of those lost yesterday, I know we can never fully repay the sacrifices made by your loved ones, but we can honor their service with our gratitude and through our steadfast dedication to do whatever is necessary to bring this fire under control,’’ Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said at Monday's press conference.

Brewer also announced she has issued a declaration of emergency and has asked for federal assistance to cover the costs of fighting the fire.

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