Sometimes, the news from my old home state is horrible.
Yarnell, Arizona is a tiny little community along the Highway 89 corridor. It’s got less than a thousand people. It’s in dry country, just a little north of Phoenix, near Prescott. There’s been a drought, and record heat, and it’s the dry-lightning season, when everything’s ready to go up at a spark, and the clouds give bolts with no rain. This is the time of year when Arizona residents bite their lips and look worriedly at the wilderness, hoping against hope they won’t see the thin column of smoke that speaks of a conflagration to come.
Lightning struck. The winds picked up. And that dry chaparral around Yarnell went up like someone had doused it with gasoline and lit a match.
The twenty-member Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighter team from Prescott went down to save lives and homes. One survived.
The tragedy Sunday evening all but wiped out the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a unit based in the town of Prescott, Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said as the last of the bodies were retrieved from the mountain. Only one member survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time, authorities said.
It was unclear exactly how the firefighters became trapped. Southwest incident team leader Clay Templin said the crew and its commanders were following safety protocols, and it appears the fire’s erratic nature simply overwhelmed them as they huddled under their heat-resistant shelters.
A National Weather Service spokesman said there was a sudden increase and shift in wind around the time of the tragedy. It’s not known how powerful the winds were, but they were enough to cause the fire to grow from 200 acres to about 2,000 in a matter of hours.
You know there’s a risk. You know that every fire is unpredictable, that conditions change, that this is wildly-dangerous work and some of you may not make it out. But you don’t think it will be nearly everyone. You don’t ever expect to lose all but one member of a team in minutes.
Nearly all of those kids were younger than I am. And that makes me think of the years they won’t have, and it’s terrible and sad. But what they did with their lives, however short, was extraordinary. Us dry country folk will never forget what they gave to save as much and as many as they could.
Ashcraft, Andrew – Age: 29
Caldwell, Robert – Age: 23
Carter, Travis – Age: 31
Deford, Dustin – Age: 24
MacKenzie, Christopher – Age: 30
Marsh, Eric – Age: 43
McKee, Grant – Age: 21
Misner, Sean – Age: 26
Norris, Scott – Age: 28
Parker, Wade – Age: 22
Percin, John – Age: 24
Rose, Anthony – Age: 23
Steed, Jesse – Age: 36
Thurston, Joe – Age: 32
Turbyfill, Travis – Age: 27
Warneke, William – Age: 25
Whitted, Clayton – Age: 28
Woyjeck, Kevin – Age: 21
Zuppiger, Garret – Age: 27
You can help the folks who have already lost so much, who are still at risk of losing everything, and get the community back on its feet after the flames die out. You can donate to the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Arizona Red Cross here. You can donate to the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ families here. There are other suggestions for helping here.
Those beautiful, brave nineteen have left a legacy. We can help ensure the community they died protecting and the people they left behind have the resources they need to rebuild their lives. Let this be part of their memorial, the most enduring one.