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Devasting Arizona wildfire kills 19 firefighters from elite 'Hotshot' unit - and it's still blazing

Wildfire prompted evacuations of at least 50 homes

A devastating wildfire that claimed the lives of 19 fire-fighters from an elite 'Hotshot' crew based in Prescott, Arizona has engulfed more than 8,370 acres, according to state officials.

The continuing blaze in Yarnell, around 85 miles northwest of Phoenix, has already forced  600 people from their homes. Arizona's Incident Management Team have warned that gusty winds and high temperatures on Monday could result in “erratic” shifts in the fire, which has grown quickly in size from about 1,000 acres on Sunday. No single wildfire has killed so many US fire-fighters since 25 died in a fire in Griffith Park in Los Angeles in 1933. The deadliest such incident in recent years was the Storm King fire in Colorado, which killed 14 fire-fighters in 1994.

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This weekend’s Arizona inferno wiped out almost the entire Prescott fire crew, which was established in 2002 and known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. A recent profile in the Prescott Daily Courier described the Hotshots as “an elite ground fire-fighting crew known for their innovative problem-solving and history of safe, aggressive fire suppression.”

The average age of the firefighters was 22, the Department of Public Safety said on Monday.

The team is accustomed to working long hours in highly dangerous conditions, often hiking miles with heavy packs to battle wildfires in isolated areas. They had recently tackled blazes elsewhere in Arizona and New Mexico. Arizona  state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told the Associated Press the unit had been trapped by the unpredictable blaze on Sunday afternoon and erected special, tent-like fire shelters to try to protect themselves from the flames.

The Yarnell fire is thought to have been sparked by a lightning strike last Friday, and has since destroyed dozens of buildings and forced the evacuation of at least 50 homes. It began as a major heatwave struck the US Southwest over the weekend, and was reportedly exacerbated by gusty winds and low humidity in the region.

In recent months, similar wildfires have ravaged swathes of Arizona’s neighbouring states, Colorado and California, following one of the driest winters in memory. This year’s fire season is on track to be worse than 2012, during which more than nine million acres burned across the US.