YARNELL, Ariz. - Nineteen elite firefighters who died battling a fast-moving wildfire here Sunday in the country's worst wildfire disaster in at least 30 years have been hailed by President Obama as "heroes."
In a statement released early Monday as he prepared to travel to Tanzania from South Africa, Obama said, "Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters."
Gusting winds and dry grass fed the blaze as it tore through the communities of Yarnell and Glen Isla about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix. An estimated 200 homes and many businesses have been destroyed.
Early Monday, local media reported the fire was zero percent contained.
"It's a dark day," said Mike Reichling, Arizona State Forestry Division spokesman.
Reichling said the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of them were found inside their shelters, which are tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat. They are typically used as a last resort.
"The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this incident," Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said in a news conference. "We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you'll ever meet."
Reichling said the number of firefighters on the scene will reach 400.
In his statement, Obama said: "The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need."
Fraijo said it is still unclear what caused the incident and he did not wish to speculate without more information.
"My heart weeps for those who lost their lives and were affected by today's Yarnell Hill Fire,'' said U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.
The lost firefighters were members of a "hotshot" crew, who specialize in attacking wildfires like the Yarnell Hill Fire. The elite firefighters often hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.
Fraijo called these hotshot crews, "the core of firefighting. They're right there in the middle of the incident," he said.
Officials at the scene of the blaze said they expect about half of the town's 500 homes to be destroyed by the fire. It has burned more than 2,000 acres.
Coe and Merrill reported from Yarnell; Cummings reported from McLean, Va.; Hjelmgaard reported from London
Contributing: William M. Welch, USA Today; The Associated Press
Jackee Coe, Laurie Merrill, William Cummings and Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY