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WASHINGTON (AFP) – U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the 19 firefighters killed battling a wildfire in Arizona as “heroes,” in a statement early Monday.

The firefighters died late Sunday afternoon while racing to contain the Yarnell Hill wildfire north of Phoenix, in what is believed to be the deadliest incident of its kind in the United States in 80 years.

“They were 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,” Obama said.

Local media reported the fire was zero percent contained early Monday, had forced the evacuations of hundreds of people and threatened some 250 homes.

“The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need,” he said as he headed to Tanzania on the final leg of an official tour of Africa with his family.

“But today, 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.”

Figures from the National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit organization, show that the Arizona deaths are the worst firefighter fatalities from a wildfire since 29 firefighters died fighting a blaze in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1933.

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