Grant McKee was 6 years old when his mother dressed him up as a firefighter, dirty and smudged from battling a blaze. Ever since that night, he knew what he wanted to do.

McKee, 21, was one of 19 firefighters with the Granite Mountain hotshots who were killed when wind-driven flames overtook the crew as it battled to save the small former gold-mining town of Yarnell, Ariz. His cousin, Robert Caldwell, 23, also died in the blaze.

The tragedy was especially felt in California, where five of the dead firefighters grew up. McKee, 21, Kevin Woyjeck, 21, of Seal Beach, Sean Misner, 26, of the Santa Ynez Valley, and Hemet natives William "Billy" Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, 30, perished with members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew.

An only child, McKee grew up in Costa Mesa and attended Newport Harbor High School. His senior year, he moved to Arizona to live with his aunt, who also lost her son, said his mother, Marcia McKee.

He wanted to spend the rest of his life with girlfriend, Leah, Marcia McKee said. Caldwell, also a firefighter, inspired him, she said, and they became close once he moved. This was McKee's first season as a member of the hotshot crew.

“He was just talking to me, telling me how safe it is, that it was going to be OK. And then this had to happen,” she said through tears.

Weeks before he began his new job, McKee visited his mother in Costa Mesa. He told her he wanted to take her to Tahiti to thank her for all she did for him, a realization that hit him as he became an adult, she said. He sent her a letter to tell her how much he loved her.

“Mom, I don’t believe I would be where I am today if it was not for you. You gave me all you could and would put your life on the line for me,” Marcia McKee read from her son’s note. “We’re best friends and that will never change,” she continued.

McKee was athletic, and wrestled throughout high school. He was loved by everyone, his mother said, and wanted to help people more than anything.

His senior year, he made the decision to move to Arizona. He needed a change, and realized the party scene in Newport wasn’t helping him get anywhere, his mother said.

“It was a wise choice for him to be so young and realize [that],” she said. “I was amazed, I don’t know if I would have been able to do that at that age.“

After he moved, his mother would often drive out to visit him and when he came out to California, they would do everything together, she said. She was always close with her son, sometimes driving a car full of friends to the bowling alley, and later regularly texting with him to keep in touch.

“He just wanted to be with me. And I’ll never get to see him again. He was my baby. He was my life,” she said.  

Flags across Los Angeles County and elsewhere were at half-staff to honor the 19 fallen men as tributes poured in. 

The Yarnell Hill Fire, apparently sparked by lightning Friday and still out of control late Monday, had spread to more than 8,400 acres and destroyed an estimated 200 buildings around the tiny mountain town of Yarnell, where residents have fled to shelters. About 280 firefighters from across the West were struggling to contain it.

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Twitter: @Sam_Schaefer

Samantha.Schaefer@latimes.com