PHOENIX, Sept 28 (Reuters) - The findings of a special investigation into the deaths of 19 elite firefighters, overtaken by a raging wildfire in central Arizona, are due for release later on Saturday at a news conference in the victims' home base of Prescott, Arizona.
The fallen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were engulfed by wind-whipped flames on the third day of a lightning-sparked inferno that destroyed scores of homes and charred 8,400 acres in and around the tiny town of Yarnell, northwest of Phoenix.
Only one member of the 20-man squad, a firefighter who was acting as lookout and was about a mile away from the rest of the crew at the time, survived.
The June 30 disaster marked the greatest loss of life from a U.S. wildfire since more than two dozen firefighters were killed battling the Griffith Park fire of 1933 in Los Angeles.
The Arizona State Forestry Division commissioned an interagency task force to examine the various factors contributing to the deaths of the hotshots crew.
All the men were specially trained to tackle fires in rugged, backcountry areas at close range, armed with little more than shovels, pick-axes and chainsaws. The Prescott team was one of only 108 such outfits around the country.
Authorities said the 19 were out carving a fire break with hand tools on one flank of the Yarnell Hills blaze when a burst of gale-force winds from an approaching thunderstorm abruptly turned the flames back in their direction.
The men, most of them in their twenties, were apparently overtaken in a matter of seconds.
Members of the team quickly deployed the cocoon-like protective shells they carry in a last-ditch bid to take cover, but some never even made it into the foil-coated capsules.
Officials are set to disclose the findings of the investigation at Prescott High School at 10 a.m. MST (1 p.m. EDT). The report will provide an overview of how the fatal accident unfolded and make recommendations for avoiding such tragedies in the future, a forestry official said.
The Yarnell Hills disaster sent waves of shock and grief through the firefighters' hometown of Prescott, a town of some 40,000 residents some 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Phoenix, the state capital. The town was once the capital of the Arizona territory during the 1860s. (Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Gevirtz)