‘Perfect storm’ likely trapped 19 firefighters; town plunged into grief

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The so-called hotshots were remembered as a rambunctious but respectful bunch: pranksters, sometimes, but dedicated and energetic professionals.

firefighters

Firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., grieve over the loss of their friends. ( Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times / July 1, 2013 )

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 a half-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.

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.

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.”

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

Now Bryan believes it’s her turn to help. “I need to find out what she needs,” Bryan said she told her cousin. “What can I do for her?”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, U.S. Army Sgt. T.J. Ashcraft said one of the dead firefighters was his younger brother Andrew, who was a good man and a good father to his four children.

“We always kind of pushed each other in good ways,” said Ashcraft, 32. “He went the firefighter route and I went the military route.”

Another dead firefighter, Anthony Rose, was expecting his first child with his fiancee, according to family friend Phyllis Barney of Glendale, Ariz.

Barney’s family met Rose in the small Arizona town of Crown King, southeast of Prescott, when Rose moved there at age 16. In Crown King, Rose earned his GED online and went to work for the local fire department.

“Just getting notifications that an entire crew is killed … is a little difficult to handle when they’re your own and whatnot,” Barney said. “But when you’ve got one that really was kind of your own … it’s even tougher.”

The firefighters’ bodies were taken to the Maricopa County medical examiner’s office in Phoenix on Monday, and it was not clear when they would be returned to Prescott. Officials were still deciding when to hold a formal memorial service.

Some of the circumstances of the crew’s plight came into slightly sharper focus Monday, although officials cautioned that it could be a couple of days before more preliminary information was available while investigators picked through the disaster area.

Before the flames overtook the firefighters, a thunderstorm cell had moved into their location west of state Highway 89 between Yarnell and Peeples Valley, fire officials said.

The storm created strong and erratic winds in an area described as extremely rocky, with rough terrain and deep canyons. The gusts pushed the flames toward the hotshots, who were trying to create a firebreak in hopes of stopping the flames’ advance, said Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department.

As the winds shifted and fire approached, the men were probably trying to get to safety — usually a clearing, Ward said.

“It had to be a perfect storm” for them to have deployed their fire shelters — a last-ditch effort made in desperate situations, he said. Officials lost contact with the crew about 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

“Obviously wherever they deployed their shelters, they were too close to heavy fuels, so they got overrun,” said Art Morrison, a fire spokesman with the Arizona State Forestry Division.

Ward knew the men, calling them “brothers.” He described the elite team  as “very cautious” and “very conservative.”

Wade Parker, 22, of Chino Valley, about 30 miles north of Prescott, was another of the victims.

Parker’s 14-year-old cousin, Hailey McMains, viewed him as a big brother. “After church, we would find a place to sit and talk about life,” Hailey said. Wade would ask her: “’Anything we need to pray for, Hailey?’ If I was having a bad week, we’d pray about that.”

Hailey said Wade and his high school sweetheart planned to marry in October. They had been together six years, she said.

She was at the home of an aunt and uncle Sunday evening when she heard on the news that some firefighters had died. “I asked my aunt, ‘Is Wade OK?’” Hailey said.

Her aunt put her fingers to her lips and said: “Sssssshhhhhhh,” pointing to one of Wade’s young nephews.

“A little while later, as I was leaving, she whispered, ‘Wade didn’t make it, Hailey,’ ” the girl recalled. “I cried all night long.”

President Obama, traveling in Africa, issued the following statement a few hours after the firefighters’ deaths near Yarnell, Ariz.:

“Yesterday, 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Ariz. They were heroes — highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.

“In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need.

“But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer also issued a statement:

“This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters. They were battling the Yarnell Fire, near Prescott, when the fast-moving blaze overtook their position.

“It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: Fighting fires is dangerous work. The risk is well-known to the brave men and women who don their gear and do battle against forest and flame.

”When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all.”

– By Louis Sahagun, Cindy Carcamo and Matt Pearce; Los Angeles Times

Carcamo reported from Prescott, Ariz., Sahagun from Chino Valley, Ariz., and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Rick Rojas in Prescott and Andrew Khouri and Devin Kelly in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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