The 19 firefighters were members of the Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots.
The firefighters had been deployed to help battle a 2,000 acre wildfire burning near the central town of Yarnell in central Arizona, located about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.State officials say the 20-member team of elite firefighters were forced to deploy their file shelters, tent-like structures meant to sheld them from flames and heat, but the blaze was too intense. Hot gusty winds blew the fast-moving wildfire out of control, trapping the firefighters with nowhere to go, and killing 19 of them.
"If you get a real big wind event or something, all of a sudden the fire blows up and you go to your safety zone and it's not big enough and so that's probably what happened with this poor crew," said Forestry spokesman Art Morrison.
Hotshot teams are usually sent to the front edge of wildfires to cut a line around the blaze.
"In normal circumstances when you're digging fire line, you make sure you have a good escape route and you have a safety zone set up," said Morrison. "Evidently, their safety zone wasnt big enough and the fire just overtook them."
The fire started with a lightning strike Friday and had spread to nearly 2,000 acres by Sunday night. High winds and little rain from a passing storm caused the fire to quickly grow from 4 to 2,000 acres.
More than 200 firefighters were working to contain the fire. An additional 130 firefighters equipped with more water and retardant-dropping helicopters and aircraft were reportedly on their way Sunday.
Authorities ordered the immediate evacuations of 50 homes in the Buckhorn, Model Creek, and DoubleABar Ranch Sunday. The blaze destroyed an estimated 200 homes in the small town. The wildfire had also forced the closure of parts of state Route 38.
In a news conference, Prescott Fire Chief Fraijo said the tragedy was devastating since the department had lost nearly all of their crew.
"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department." We grieve for the city," he said at a news conference Sunday evening. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."
Officials said the sole surviving member of the hotshot team was uninjured. No details of how he managed to escape the fire were released.
Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots unit was established in 2002 and had worked other wildfires in recent weeks in New Mexico and Arizona. In 2009, the crew helped fight the Station Fire, the largest fire in Los Angeles County history.
President Barack Obama released the following statement regarding Sunday's tragedy:
"Yesterday, nineteen firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Arizona. 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.
"In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need.
"But 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."
The Yarnell Hill fire is reportedly the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.
The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. as the deadliest wildland fire. Fourteen firefighters were killed in 1994 when they were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.