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19 fallen firefighters plunge Prescott, Ariz., into grief

July 01, 2013|By Louis Sahagun, Cindy Carcamo and Matt Pearce | This post has been updated, as indicated below.

PRESCOTT, ARIZ. -- In the business of firefighting, they're known as "hotshots." Grateful residents here remember them as a rambunctious but respectful bunch: pranksters, sometimes, but dedicated and energetic professionals.

Their boss, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, grew apprehensive Sunday as another official told him Prescott's elite Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had dug in to escape the wind-driven Yarnell Hill wildfire.

“All he said was, 'We might have bad news. The entire hotshot crew deployed their shelters,' " Fraijo recalled Monday.

The worst was soon confirmed: All but one member of the 20-man crew died after being overrun by the fire, which destroyed 200 buildings in the small town of Yarnell and exceeded 8,000 acres by Monday.

The tragedy reverberated through Prescott and beyond, as portraits of the lost Prescott crew took shape and the town took its first steps toward mourning the dead.

About half a dozen people gathered on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Prescott on Monday afternoon to pray for the fallen firefighters, for those left injured and homeless by the blaze and for those still fighting the conflagration.

They also prayed for rain.

"What we'd love to see for our firefighters and the town of Yarnell is more rain and lots of it -- and preferably less wind," said the Rev. Scott Mitchell of The Church Next Door. As the people bowed their heads and consulted their Bibles, fire trucks sped by, "Flagstaff Hot Shots" emblazoned on several vehicles. 

"That's the road to Yarnell," said the Rev. Dave Barreras, 46, leader of the Yavapai Territorial Gospel Rescue Mission.

But Prescott had no more firefighters to send. Its only wildland team was gone.

The hotshot crew victims were all men, most in their 20s.

"It’s a younger man’s game. These people keep themselves in exceptional condition," said Fraijo, who added, “I never heard them complain.... They always showed a great deal of respect. They always seemed to be playing pranks on each other, and a few on me."

The deceased were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carder, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.

At least three hailed from Southern California: Woyjeck from Seal Beach and Warneke and MacKenzie from Hemet.

The identity of the crew member who survived has not been released.

"He’s well; he had been assigned to do a function and he wasn’t with them when they had deployed to shelter,” Fraijo said. “He feels terribly, and we all feel terribly, and we have very few words that express that sort of sorry. When you take a person in your arms and hug 'em, you know, you don’t have to say too much.”

Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman with the federal Bureau of Land Management, said officials had expected that 400 firefighters would be on duty Monday, but only 280 were on the lines by afternoon.

Godfrey said officials were hoping for more but didn't know when, or whether, they would arrive. “There are fires elsewhere,” Godfrey said. “We only have so many resources to deal with.”

Thunderheads built over Prescott on Monday, delivering thunder, lightning and heavy rain by midday. But by 3:30 p.m., none of the rain had hit the fire area.

The blaze was sparked by a lightning strike Friday, officials said. 

In a sprawling gymnasium on a college campus in Prescott, cots were set up and meals were being served for those who fled the raging wildfire. Between 40 and 50 people had registered at the facility, organized by the Red Cross, and more were expected by nightfall, said Michele Maki of the Red Cross.

Shelters had also been organized in Wickenburg and Kingman.

"It's been a very busy day for the Red Cross," Maki said. The shelters are meant to serve not only as a place to eat or rest, she said, but also as a place to seek emotional and spiritual help from counselors and chaplains.

"For these people, it's very personal," Maki said. 

Kathy Bryan of Williamson Valley said the members of the fire crew who perished helped save her home from the Doce blaze after it flared up June 18 in the Granite Mountain Wilderness, northwest of Prescott. That’s roughly 20 miles north of the Yarnell Hill fire.

“These hotshots were on our properties, saving them … saving my house,” Bryan said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Bryan and her dogs fled her home before the blaze approached. Soon Bryan’s cousin called, letting her know that the wife of one of the hotshots fighting the blaze had offered Bryan a place to stay. That woman is now a widow, Bryan said.

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