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01/07/2013 08:00 BST | Updated 01/07/2013 08:48 BST

Arizona Wildfire Kills 19 Firefighters (PICTURES, VIDEO)

A deadly wildfire fuelled by fierce winds has claimed the lives of 19 members of the same fire crew, northwest of Phoenix, Arizona.

The fire started Friday and picked up momentum as the area experienced high temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions. It has forced the evacuation of residents in the Peeples Valley area.

The firefighters were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told The Associated Press.

The fire, believed to have been started by a lightning strike, was still burning late into Sunday night, fuelled by the day's dry heat, high temperatures and warm winds.

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Homes burn as the Yarnell Hill Fire approaches in Glenn Ilah near Yarnell, Ariz

It had spread across an estimated 2,000 acres, destroying swathes of the forest close to the towns of Yarnell And Glen Ilah, and around 200 homes.

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said in a statement that the 19 dead firefighters were a part of the city's fire department.

"We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city," he said at a news conference Sunday evening. "We're devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you'll ever meet."

"By the time they got there, it was moving very quickly.

"One of the last fail safe methods that a firefighter can do under those conditions is literally to dig as much as they can down and cover themselves with a protective – kinda looks like a foil type – fire-resistant material – with the desire, the hope at least, is that the fire will burn over the top of them and they can survive it," Fraijo said.

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The fire started Friday and picked up momentum as the area experienced high temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions.

"Under certain conditions there's usually only sometimes a 50 percent chance that they survive," he said. "It's an extreme measure that's taken under the absolute worst conditions."

"This is as dark a day as I can remember," Arizona Governor 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."