More than 6000 people- including Arizona governor Jan Brewer and Vice President Joe Biden- were in attendance for a memorial eulogizing the 19 firefighters killed on June 30th battling the Yarnell Hill blaze some 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Thousands of firefighters from departments and agencies across North America filled Tim’s Toyota Center arena for the memorial, joining relatives of the 19 hotshots, who perished in the deadliest wildland firefighting disaster in Arizona history.
Afterward, the families claimed their loved ones and prepared for individual funerals, which will begin today and continue into next week, in Arizona and in firefighters’ home states, including California, Oregon, Montana and Illinois.
More than anything, the memorial Tuesday was about firefighters, the 19 who died and the thousands who journeyed to Arizona to pay tribute. Inside the arena and outside were representatives from wildland crews and departments from almost every state and Canada.
Firefighters from other cities took up stations in Prescott to allow every member of the Prescott Fire Department to attend the service, a show of brotherhood that speakers mentioned often.
“Most people can’t comprehend the culture and bond of our profession,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “The Granite Mountain Hotshot crew spent days, weeks at a time, deployed in the wilderness together and the only thing they had for certain was each other, their professional family. We all have two families, our loving families at home and our firefighter family on the job.”
As the memorial began, a procession of wildland firefighters filed in and stood at attention in front of the stage. Dignitaries and family members were never without a uniformed escort.
Family members were given several items in honor of the hotshots, including an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, an Arizona flag that had flown over the state Capitol and a bronzed Pulaski tool, used for more than a century by wildland firefighters to dig firebreaks and build trails.
Later in the service, the firefighting union presented the families with firefighters’ medals of honor, given to firefighters who die in the line of duty.
Near the end, Tim Hill, president of the Professional Fighters of Arizona, fought back tears as he described the ritual of the final alarm, a series of three bells sounded three times that marked the end of a firefighters’ service.
Afterward, buglers played echo taps and four AV-8B Harrier jets from the Marine Corps station in Yuma flew in formation over the arena, in honor of the aviation tradition in fighting wildfires, and of the three hotshots who had been Marines. In the ceremonial missing-man formation, one of the four rose from the group as it passed and pulled away into the sky.
Officials believe that the escape routes for the Prescott, AZ Fire Department's specialized wildfire crew was cut off by erratic, swirling winds as they were battling the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30, making it the single deadliest day for American firefighters since the loss of 343 FDNY firefighters in the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks against New York's World Trade Center. Although the crew was carrying emergency shelters that were to be used as a last resort, it's possible they never even had a chance to deploy them, or even if they were deployed they remained ineffective.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots- also known posthumously as the Yarnell 19- were also unique in that they were one of the few 'Hotshot' wildfire crews formed as part of a municipal fire department; most wildfire crews come from state or federal agencies. Those killed on Yarnell Hill that fateful day include Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Anthony Rose, 23; Christopher MacKenzie, 20; Clayton Whitted, 28; Dustin DeFord, 24; Garrett Zuppinger, 27; Grant McKee, 21; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Joe Percin Jr, 24; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; Eric Marsh, 43; Robert Caldwell, 23; Scott Norris, 28; Sean Misner, 26; Travis Carter, 31; Travis Turbyfill, 27, Wade Parker, 22 and Billy Warneke, 25.
Yarnell Hill Fire from Congress, AZ from Matt Oss on Vimeo.
The fast moving Yarnell Hill fire was believed to have been sparked by lightning on June 28th and spread quickly by swirling winds in the mountainous area of central Arizona. Some 10 days after the death of the Granite Mountain hotshots, highway 89- the main route between Wickenburg, AZ and Prescott, AZ- reopened to through traffic. Some residents of the town of Yarnell began filing home shortly after Independence Day and the Yarnell Hill fire was at 90% containment.