19 firemen killed as blaze sweeps through US town
Published 02/07/2013 | 05:00
Nineteen firemen have been hailed as heroes by US President Barack Obama after being killed fighting a wildfire that swept through a tiny town in Arizona.
The men, most members of an elite mountain force, died yesterday in Yarnell, a mountain community of about 650 people.
Mr Obama said during his tour of Tanzania that America was "heartbroken" by their deaths – the country's largest loss of firemen since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when 343 died.
"It is one more reminder that our first responders put their lives on the line every day," the president said, praising all those emergency service officers who "run towards the danger".
"They were heroes" who "selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet", Mr Obama added.
Juliann Ashcraft (23) told her local newspaper that she learned of the death of her husband, Andrew, while watching television news reports of the fire with their four children.
"They died heroes," said a weeping Mrs Ashcraft. "And we'll miss them. We love them."
Eighteen of those killed worked for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a specialist team of 20 young wildfire-fighters based in nearby Prescott and sent to extreme emergencies.
The elite unit was founded in 2002 and required recruits to go through a gruelling boot-camp of "rigorous physical and mental training". It was said to have had an average age of just 22.
The men died despite deploying fireproof emergency tents designed to protect them. Officials said an inquiry would be held into why the tents failed.
"We are devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you will ever meet," Dan Fraijo, the fire chief of Prescott, said.
The fire was started by a lightning strike last Friday, before exploiting dry, windy conditions to spread across 8,000 acres.
It does not appear that any residents had been killed or seriously injured, but hundreds of houses were feared destroyed.
At least 250 firemen were continuing to fight the fire – which had broken into several separate blazes – last night. Their number was expected to increase to 400. (© Daily Telegraph, London)