Nineteen firefighters from an elite team in Arizona were killed on Sunday (June 30), while battling a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed scores of homes and forced the evacuation of two small towns northwest of Phoenix, the state capital, authorities said.

The tragedy ranked as the greatest loss of life among firefighters from a single wildland blaze in the United States in 80 years, since 29 men died battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles, according to National Fire Protection Association records.

The fire chief said he did not know the circumstances that led to the 19 deaths and that one member of the 20-man crew happened to be in a separate location and survived. There was no immediate information on his condition.

The blaze, stoked by strong, dry winds and a heatwave that has baked the region in 54 degree temperatures, has charred about 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of tinder-dry chaparral and grasslands, fire officials said.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of Yarnell and the adjoining town of Peeples Valley, alerting residents through reverse 911 emergency calls to homes and sending sheriff's deputies door to door, according to the InciWeb fire news site of the U.S. Forest Service.

Presented by Adam Justice

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