Last Sunday, our community lost 19 firefighters out of a crew of 20 in a manner of minutes. It is a loss beyond imagination, but real nonetheless. They were members of an elite wildfire fighting force called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a highly trained, special unit of the Prescott Fire Department. The 20 member crew of the Granite Mountain Hotshots are the first on the scene of a wildfire, taking a direct line of attack to any wildfire here in the central highlands of Arizona. They must carry a 40 pound backpack, often need to traverse tough and treacherous, mountainous, desert terrain in the summer heat well above 90 or 100 degrees. They are on scene, day and night, at the hottest and most dangerous part of the wildfire until the wildfire is contained.
Please follow me below the fold.
It's been a busy month of June for the Hotshots, who finished the month containing the Doce fire which threatened Williamson Valley, an horse ranch area of Prescott. It took a week to get that fire under control, burning roughshod over the steep hills and deep canyons of Granite Mountain. But, no lives were lost, no property was damaged. Hundreds of homes, and the livelihood of scores of families were saved. A job well done. As a community, we stood poised to celebrate our firefighting heroes as the world's oldest rodeo kicked off the Independence Day week. It's always party time in Prescott at this time of the year.
Yet, the final days of June, just 2 days after Doce fire was contained, Mother Nature put on a lightning show amidst a volatile thunderstorm weather pattern, bringing with it 22 mph winds, scattered showers and plenty of thunder and lightning. Everyone knew somewhere a wildfire was poised to happen. On Friday, the storm sparked a wildfire in the Yarnell Hills, a craggy mountain range just about 20 miles south of Prescott as the crows fly, about 30 miles per car or an hour on a winding road through the Bradshaw Mountains range. The tiny hamlet community of Yarnell, sitting on the crest of the range with a population around 1000, was on alert, although not threatened as the fire was 10 miles away and heading in an opposite direction, into the wilderness of the range.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots sprang into action, with less than 48 hours of downtime from the Doce fire under their belt. They were on the scene within the hour. By Sunday, they had hiked in and were on day two of creating a perimeter to contain the fire. Mother Nature however did not cooperate with their efforts, continuing to hit the area with on-going and persistent severe thunderstorms, with lots of winds but little rain. By noon, the weather pattern abruptly changed, and the winds became a howling force, pushing the fire towards the town of Yarnell and towards the firefighters creating the containment perimeter. Apprised of the changing situation by their lookout, the Granite Mountain Hotshots had little time to set up their emergency shelters. The raging wildfire was now moving at a mile per minute. Within minutes, the wildfire looped over the Hotshots, engulfing them in their emergency shelters, while it burned a path of destruction into the town of Yarnell.
Within the hour, the devasting news spread quickly, like the Yarnell wildfire, through our community and the state as a whole. Whether we knew these guys personally or not, we knew of them and the work they did year after year, summer after summer, wildfire after wildfire. At lot of them were young, in their early 20s, most of them local. The grief is heavy. Flags have been flying at half mast since the news broke. No official mandate needed. Last night, a citizen sponsored memorial gathering happened at the high school. The football field, bleachers and open areas were packed. The 5000 plus crowd overflowed into the parking lot and neighboring streets. The start of our annual party week, when the world's oldest rodeo comes to town, has started out on a somber note.
As of this writing, the Yarnell fire remains ablaze, although 80% contained. The winds have died down, the thunderstorms have abated. The destruction brought about by the wildfire continues. More than 125 homes of Yarnell have been burned to the ground and other arms of the fire are now threatening Morristown, another hamlet community, and the horse ranches of Peeples Valley. Hotshot units from other Fire districts have descended upon the Yarnell wildfire. In time, it will be fully contained. The final tally has yet to be determined.
In the meantime, the bodies of our Granite Mountain Hotshots lie at the medical examiner's office in Phoenix, about 100 miles south, for autopsy. This upcoming Sunday, they will be released and sent home to Prescott for burial. Then closure may begin, particularly for the families, but also for the community, our community, my community. It's going to take awhile to get through this one. For now, our thoughts and our prayers are with the families who lost their loved one, their very own Hotshot, in the Yarnell fire. Strength to you, to each and every family member. May you find peace in time and in the knowledge that he died to protect others. There is no cause more noble.
Here's a link to an article in the Daily Courier, our local paper, which has a brief bio and picture for each of the fallen firefighter.
If anyone wishes to and can help out the families of the firefighters and/or the people of Yarnell who lost their homes and livelihood, here are some links to the fundraisers going on to help out financially.
"Wildland Firefighter Foundation's main focus is to help families of firefighters killed in the line of duty and to assist injured firefighters and their families. We honor and acknowledge past, present, and future members of the wildland firefighting community, and partner with private and interagency organizations to bring recognition to wildland firefighters. "
2. The Prescott Fire Department is accepting donations to be mailed to 1700 Iron Springs Road, Prescott 86301. Write "Granite Mountain Hotshots Family" on the check.
3. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation set up the Yarnell Hill Fallen Firefighters Fund and is accepting donations to aid the survivors and co-workers of the fallen firefighters. Donations may be mailed to P.O. Drawer 498, Emmitsburg, MD 21727, or by credit card at www.regonline.com/yarnellhill.
4. 100 Club Survivors Fund in memory of the Granite Mountain Hotshots at www.100club.org, or by calling 602-485-0100.
5. Yarnell Fire Fund may be made in person at any National Bank of Arizona branch or through United Way's website, www.unitedwayyavapai.org.
6. The Prescott Firefighters Charities: NO administrative costs (all volunteer managed) and a 501c3 charity and 100% goes to families.
7. the Arizona State Credit Union is matching donations:
Arizona State Credit Union is accepting donations in an effort to immediately support the families impacted by the loss of the Prescott firefighters. Please visit one of our 21 statewide locations to make a donation to assist these families. The Credit Union will match up to $20,000 of direct contributions, and will recognize donors by name below. The Credit Union is also offering emergency financial assistance to Yarnell community members who may be affected by the fire.
There has also been a petition started to honor the fallen Hotshots. President Obama has already called our Governor Brewer to extend condolences to the families. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to attend the memorial service being held for the community next Turesday. You may sign your name here:
Postscript: Just found out a most vile and revolting plan. The Westboro Baptist Church, situated in Topeka, Kansas, plans to picket the firefighters funerals. I can not tell you how absolutely enraged I feel. This is not a new thing to do for the Westboro Baptist Church, who has picketed the funerals of our soldier who fought and died in America's foreign wars. This congregation, who stands alone in their vile conduct, believes that loss of life such as these are God's wrath upon the sins of America in her movement to give the LBGT community equal rights as all heterosexual citizens. The Westboro Baptist Church has actually tweeted praise for this "God-consuming fire" and asks if we as a nation "have repented yet?" While I firmly believe these folks will burn in hell themselves, I am appalled, simply appalled. No polite words come to mind at the moment.
Because of their vile activities, over the years, a Patriot Guard has formed, comprised of motorcyclist, generally veterans, who with their bikes form a blockade between the Westboro Baptist Church activists and the families burying their son or daughter. This Patriot Guard is in every state and will take on the Westboro Baptist Church physically if needed. Often the bikers will blast patriotic songs through their bike's sound system to counter the chanting and yelling from the Westboro activists intend upon disrupting a funeral. My other half is part of Arizona's Patriot Guard and will no doubt be at each and every Hotshot funeral, ready, willing and able to serve those who served us so ably and gave their all in doing so. So will the rest of us be there, as a community. Damn the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.