President Obama Hails 19 Fallen Firefighters As 'Heroes'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – Five members of the FDNY’s incident management team are heading to Arizona to lend a hand after the stunning deaths of 19 firefighters.

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The firefighters were killed battling a raging wildfire. It is the nation’s largest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.

They were considered the best of the best, CBS 2’s Kathryn Brown reported.

They were members of a squad called the “Granite Mountain Hot Shots crew,” trained year-round for conditions exactly like the one that turned deadly.

Some 13 square miles are caught up in the blaze.

“We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet,” said Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. “Right now, we’re in crisis.”

The Hot Shots are an elite unit designed to fight wildfires.

“They are the guys that will go out there with 40, 50 pounds of equipment and walk five miles, sleep out there as they try to develop fire lines and put protection between homes, natural resources and still try to remain safe,” Fraijo said.

President Barack Obama called the 19 people heroes and said in a statement that the federal government was assisting state and local officials.

“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. “It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: Fighting fires is dangerous work.”

The news hit hard even in New York where officials reflected on the upsetting loss of life.

“I can’t imagine the crushing tragedy for something liek that to happen; to lose so many young, talented passionate people at once,” Captain Dan Walsh of the New York State Forestry Rangers told CBS 2’s Lou Young.

The fear of getting caught in fast moving flames is a fear of every professional firefighter, precautions are taken but they aren’t a guarantee.

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“The idea is you’ve got a whole lot of fuel out there, the weeds, the trees, the shrubs. You make a break so the fire will run out of fuel and the fire will die,” New York Forest Ranger Robert Dawson explained.

As a last ditch option to save themselves firefighters carry special shelters that can be used if they get caught by serious flames.

“You have to have it with you at all times. You can’t be separated from your pack because you can’t be separated from your shelter,” New York Park Ranger Megan Dominesey explained.

One member of the hotshot crew survived because he was moving the unit’s truck when the flames roared over the men, Arizona Forestry Division spokesman Mike Reichling said.

“He’s the only one who made it out because he was jockeying equipment at the time,” Reichling said.

Authorities believe a lightning strike sparked the fire Friday. High winds and monsoon rains fanned the flames Sunday.

“You know, this fire was very radical in its behavior. The fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, winds were coming out of the south,” said Mike Bracon of the All Hazards Incident Management Team. “It turned around on us because of monsoon action… That’s what caused the deaths, the change in the radical behavior of the burning fuels. They were just caught up in a very bad situation.”

As many as 200 homes in the town of Yarnell have already been destroyed, and hundreds more have been evacuated.

“It was moving away. It looked like Yarnell was going to be spared,” said Yarnell evacuee Jerry Jones Florman. “And then the wind came up and it flew right back on us.”

Fire officials say the Hot Shots were forced to deploy their emergency shelters – special fireproof covers designed to be their last hope in case something goes terribly wrong. But even those could not save them.

The average of the Hot Shots is 22 years old. The group was profiled in a local newspaper just last weekend. One of their wives was quoted as saying she understood her husband’s passion but “I think, how would I feel if my husband lost his life trying to save someone’s home?”

The fire continues to rage out of control.

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