Tuesday, July 2, 2013
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — When unpredictable wind gusts picked up Sunday, an Arizona wildfire overcame and killed 19 hotshot firefighters. Monday dawned as a painful time for families, friends and community members in Prescott, Ariz.
The day began with about a dozen reporters standing at a roadblock. They were hoping to get a close-up look at the fire. In the distance, planes dropped flame retardant on the Yarnell Hill. The outgoing fire boss Roy Hall spoke to the group.
"Good morning. It's been a long night. These are the worst of times for firefighters," Hall said. "As we face the day the highest priority is for the fallen comrades. Once that mission has been taken care of, we'll go on with the firefight.It's a long ways from being over."
Hall went on to explain that a large-scale Incident Management Team was taking over, which meant more federal help was on the way.
Several hundred people had evacuated from Yarnell and Peeples Valley. About 200 structures had burned to the ground. As the day wore on, sporadic spurts of rain, swirling winds, thunder and dry lightning took no mercy on the crews left fighting the blaze.
At the Red Cross evacuation center at the Yavapai Community College gym, Jim Kellman described the towering flames that marched toward his neighborhood. They were partly obscured by thick, black smoke.
"We just packed up what we could and headed out," he said." I have no idea if my house is there. I heard the Peeples Valley Fire Department has burned and I live a block away from there. So I don't know if that's true or not."
With fires like these, rumor and uncertainty spread quickly. Kellmann said what so many people who live near dry forests in the Southwest say.
"Never thought it would happen to me. It's always far away from us. Now it's right there in your backyard," he said.
As vulnerable as he felt, Kellmann said his sacrifice is nothing compared to what the families of the firefighters are going through. A house is replaceable.
"You can't replace a person. I know they're doing a job but they're out there doing a job for somebody they have no idea who they are. I can't explain what they do," Kellmann said.
But Don Devendorf can. He’s a division chief for the Prescott Fire Department and he was about to give a stirring speech at the afternoon’s memorial. He said the criteria for hiring hotshots, the most elite and highly trained firefighters, is strict. Devendorf said they had to be able to recite safety rules backwards and forward.
"Any one of them could be placed in a lookout position and everyone of them knew what to do to make sure they kept the rest of the crew safe," Devendorf said. "They were a well-oiled machine of extremely skilled young and not-so-young, 30s, men. The only thing I can imagine is something went horribly horribly wrong because I know these guys and safety is their utmost concern."
Devendorf’s most important job this week will be comforting the families and the remaining Prescott firefighters.
"We look at each other and we cry. And we recognize that it could have been any one of us. A lot of us started in the hotshot division," he said.
Before a packed auditorium of politicians and everyday people, Devendorf said the word "brave" gets thrown around a lot, but firefighting is a calling. He said it's about getting the training, having the drive and knowing you can make a difference.
Devendorf received a standing ovation from the hundreds gathered. At the end of the ceremony the 40 or so hotshots from other departments and friends of the men who died were asked to come on stage. There was a moment of silence as the names of the firefighters who died appeared on the large screen behind them.
Then they looked at each other and cried.