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Officials Probe Deaths Of Elite Arizona Firefighter Unit

YARNELL, Ariz., (UPI) –  Authorities probed how an elite team of 19 Arizona firefighters was overcome by a wind-whipped wildfire, as the growing blaze raged out of control Tuesday.

“We have to get to the bottom of what went wrong with that particular team,” Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling told The Arizona Republic.

All standard procedures were followed, he said.

The firefighters deployed high-tech, tent-like fire shelters, the last line of defense for front-line firefighters, to protect themselves from the roaring flames, state fire officials said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency and ordered flags across the state lowered to half-staff Wednesday.

“I am so sorry we come together today under these very tragic circumstances,” Brewer told reporters in Prescott, 35 miles northwest of the tiny town of Yarnell, where the men were overtaken by an epic wildfire stoked by unpredictable, gusty winds, triple-digit temperatures and low humidity.

The weather was forecast to be more of the same Tuesday.

Brewer said the Yarnell Hill fire, some 80 miles northwest of Phoenix, had exploded into a “firestorm” that overcame even the most experienced firefighters.

The tragedy “will forever ring as one of our state’s darkest, most devastating days,” Brewer said in a statement.

“It will forever remind us of the constant peril our firefighters selflessly face protecting us,” she said. “We can never repay these nineteen men and their families for their service and the ultimate sacrifice they made on our behalf. We can, however, offer them our deepest, eternal debt of gratitude.”

President Obama, traveling in Africa, said the firefighters “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.”

The deaths were the largest firefighting loss of life in Arizona history and the worst U.S. wildland firefighting tragedy since 29 firefighters were killed in the 1933 Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles.

Sunday’s deaths were also the largest fire department loss of life since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

White vans carrying the fallen firefighters’ remains drove from Yarnell to Phoenix, where they passed beneath American flags hanging from two giant ladder trucks.

The firefighting crew — members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots squad of wildfire-battling experts — included four rookies, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo told reporters.

Fourteen of the dead were still in their 20s, he said. The youngest were 21.

The fire wiped out a crack fire brigade that had been in development for 20 years, he said. “There’s no one left.”

One hotshot was away from the group at the time.

The U.S. Forest Service took command of the fire from state forestry officials late Monday.

The shift makes the fire a “Type 1″ incident, which will bring in the most experienced teams and potentially more resources, the Republic said.

The fire, which has destroyed more than 200 homes, raged out of control Tuesday, growing more than 10 times in size from when it started to more than 9,000 acres.

More than 400 firefighters battled the blaze.

UPI - United Press International, Inc.

Since 1907, United Press International (UPI) has been a leading provider of critical information to media outlets, businesses, governments and researchers worldwide.

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