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19 fallen firefighters plunge Prescott, Ariz., into grief

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PRESCOTT, ARIZ. -- In the business of firefighting, they're known as "hotshots." Grateful residents here remember them as a rambunctious but respectful bunch: pranksters, sometimes, but dedicated and energetic professionals.

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 half a 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.

"What we'd love to see for our firefighters and the town of Yarnell is more rain and lots of it -- and preferably less wind," said the Rev. Scott Mitchell of The Church Next Door. As the people bowed their heads and consulted their Bibles, fire trucks sped by, "Flagstaff Hot Shots" emblazoned on several vehicles. 

"That's the road to Yarnell," said the Rev. Dave Barreras, 46, leader of the Yavapai Territorial Gospel Rescue Mission.

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.

At least three hailed from Southern California: Woyjeck from Seal Beach and Warneke and MacKenzie from Hemet.

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.”

Dennis Godfrey, a spokesman with the federal Bureau of Land Management, said officials had expected that 400 firefighters would be on duty Monday, but only 280 were on the lines by afternoon.

Godfrey said officials were hoping for more but didn't know when, or whether, they would arrive. “There are fires elsewhere,” Godfrey said. “We only have so many resources to deal with.”

Thunderheads built over Prescott on Monday, delivering thunder, lightning and heavy rain by midday. But by 3:30 p.m., none of the rain had hit the fire area.

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

In a sprawling gymnasium on a college campus in Prescott, cots were set up and meals were being served for those who fled the raging wildfire. Between 40 and 50 people had registered at the facility, organized by the Red Cross, and more were expected by nightfall, said Michele Maki of the Red Cross.

Shelters had also been organized in Wickenburg and Kingman.

"It's been a very busy day for the Red Cross," Maki said. The shelters are meant to serve not only as a place to eat or rest, she said, but also as a place to seek emotional and spiritual help from counselors and chaplains.

"For these people, it's very personal," Maki 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 cirumstances 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.”

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.

[Updated, 10:27 p.m. July 1: The lead of this post has altered to make clear that "hotshots" is a specific firefighting term.]

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