President Obama on Monday offered his condolences to the families of 19 firefighters who died battling a raging wildfire in central Arizona.

Obama praised the firefighters as “heroes — highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet,” in a statement.


“In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need,” Obama, who is on a weeklong trip to Africa, said.

“Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”

Reports said the tragedy was the worst loss of firefighters since 341 New York City firefighters and two paramedics lost their lives responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack. It was the largest number of firefighters killed battling a wildfire since 1933, when 25 died fighting a blaze in California.

The firefighters were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a special unit which was working to extinguish a forest fire northwest of Phoenix in the town of Yarnell, Ariz. The unit was killed on Sunday when strong winds rapidly changed the direction of the fire, overtaking their positions.

Steve Skurja, a spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, said crews had located the bodies of the firefighters. Officials declined to identify the men until their families could be notified.

“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in a statement. “When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind.”

Reports said the town of Yarnell had been evacuated, with more than 200 homes already destroyed, as the fire continued to burn early Monday morning.