Several local firefighters are once more making their way to Prescott Valley today — not to help battle a blaze as they did last week, but to honor 19 fallen Prescott hotshots.
Off-duty firefighters and their families are attending a service at Tim’s Toyota Center, a 5,000-seat arena, including some that helped work the Yarnell Hill wildfire last week. Hellsgate and Payson Fire Departments are also each sending one engine.
The bodies of the 19 firefighters on the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew arrived in Prescott Sunday after a public procession that started in Phoenix. The memorial Tuesday starts at 11 a.m. and the White House said Vice President Joe Biden would attend.
One of three Payson firefighters sent to Yarnell for three days last week said he was taking his children to the memorial service.
Nationwide, there has been an outpouring of support for the fallen men and their families.
In Payson, Safeway customers donated more than $20,000 over the July 4th holiday weekend for the families of the 19. Store managers said cashiers struggled to keep up with both the pace of the donations — and the emotions the outpouring evoked.
A Payson firefighter who worked the line last week said he was honored to help battle the blaze.
“We were blessed with the opportunity to go there and help and not just wish that we could,” he said. “Given the opportunity to do something was a blessing and something we appreciate.”
He said every firefighter wanted to help after the tragedy and would have gone, given the opportunity.
With this thought foremost in his mind, the firefighter said working the blaze came with many emotions. They felt huge sorry for the families, concern for the community, confusion about what led up to the deaths and resolve to prevent it from happening again.
Fire officials placed the Payson crew on a ranch on the northern edge of the fire. Although the fire had already gone through the ranch the day before and consumed the main home, several outbuildings and a smaller groundskeeper’s home remained standing.
The Payson team, along with a crew from Cottonwood and Sedona, looked for hot spots on the property and any wayward embers that could start another blaze and spread to the forest.
Firefighters searched cracks in the deck, siding and anywhere else embers could hide and found several hot spots.
“There was still heat in there that we were able to mop up,” he said.
Each afternoon, the buildup of the monsoonal storms reminded crews that the fire could shift direction in minutes, “just like the day of the tragedy,” the firefighter said.
A preliminary report released Saturday indicates the Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped when flames overran their position amid heavy winds, but it drew no conclusions as to what caused the tragedy.
The Forest Service has struggled to come up with enough money to fight the rising number of megafires, setting new records of tragedy every year. Reportedly, crews have struggled to maintain communications on other major fires. The fire managers set up radio relay stations on mountain tops around the Yarnell blaze, but reportedly not until after the deaths of the crew.
The Payson firefighter said as they wait to learn what happened that day, everyone is thinking how to prevent such a tragedy.
Payson fire already sends all of its firefighters through basic wildfire training, including how to cut fire lines, basics of command and how to get in a fire shelter.
But the dramatic growth in the numbers and size of fires and the number of communities set down in a tinder-dry forest have increasingly overwhelmed those on-the-ground skills. Yarnell sits in the middle of manzanita and oak brush chaparral, naturally adapted to burning every five or six years and coming back from the roots. However, due to a century of energetic fire suppression, the area hasn’t had a major wildfire in 40 years. As a result, tons of dead wood have accumulated on every brush-choked acre and the fire exhibited “radical” behavior when fanned by monsoon winds in 100-degree temperatures.
Media reports indicate the Granite Mountain crew was working to create a line to protect a subdivision nestled in the tinder-dry chaparral. The lookout posted by the hotshot crew reported an abrupt change in fire behavior as a dry swirl of wind blasted through the area. The lookout warned the crew and fled minutes ahead of the flames. The crew, however, all died after deploying their shelters.