5 members of fallen Arizona firefighting team had California roots
Flags in Los Angeles County were at half-staff Tuesday to honor firefighters who died battling a blaze raging in Arizona.
Nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew were killed Sunday when flames ravaging the evacuated town of Yarnell, Ariz., overtook them. Five of the dead grew up in California: Kevin Woyjeck, 21, of Seal Beach; Grant McKee, 21, of Orange County; Sean Misner, 26, of the Santa Ynez Valley; and Hemet natives William “Billy” Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, 30.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy for the entire country and a grim reminder of the dangers that first responders face on a daily basis,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement.
Woyjeck started as a fire explorer in the Los Angeles County Fire Department mentorship and training program, and was a paramedic in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the department.
He followed in the footsteps of his father, Joe Woyjeck, an L.A. County Fire Department captain, hoping to eventually work side by side with him.
“It truly breaks my heart that I stand here and speak on behalf of my profession and my department, and on behalf of the Woyjeck family,” L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said, struggling to hold back tears. “But I also have solace in knowing that Kevin was doing what he truly enjoyed and that was being a firefighter.”
Kevin Hashemi, 20, who met Woyjeck about two years ago in the fire academy in Southern California.
“Everyone is shaken up,” Hashemi said. “Firefighting is a brotherhood. Any death affects the whole community, but when you know someone it’s that much worse.”
Warneke served in Iraq with the Marines, then got married and used the GI Bill to become a firefighter, said his grandmother Nancy Warneke.
He and his wife, Roxanne, met were expecting their first child. They recently moved to Tucson to live near her family, Nancy Warneke said.
“It’s hard to believe it’s all happened, but he died doing what he believed in,” his grandmother said. “We can be proud.”
He loved the outdoors and wildlife, and he and his wife hoped to plant a garden at their new place, she said. He liked cooking and his grandmother’s zucchini bread, a few loaves of which were reserved for him in her freezer.
“I guess I’ll find someone else to give them to,” she said.
MacKenzie was a 2001 Hemet High graduate who joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2004. He moved to the Prescott Fire Department about two years ago, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.
He became a firefighter just like his father, former California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Mike MacKenzie.
When MacKenzie’s childhood friend Dav Fulford-Brown heard about the Arizona fire Sunday, he said, “‘Oh my God, that’s Chris’ crew.’ I started calling him and calling him and got no answer.”
An avid snowboarder, MacKenzie lived his life to the fullest and was “fighting fire just like his dad,” Fulford-Brown told the Press-Enterprise.
“He was finishing his credentials to get promoted and loved the people. It’s an insane tragedy,” he said.
McKee attended Newport Harbor High School, a neighbor said. He had just joined the Granite Mountain hotshot crew after his cousin, 23-year-old Robert Caldwell, got him a job. Both died Sunday.
Sean Misner, 26, leaves a wife who is seven months pregnant, Mark Swanitz, principal of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School, told Associated Press. Misner was the nephew of Montecito Fire Department Operations Chief Terry McElwee and grandson of former Fire Chief Herb McElwee, according to the department.
Misner played varsity football and participated in the school’s sports medicine program, where he wrapped sprained ankles and took care of sidelined athletes.
“He was a team player, a real helper,” Swanitz said. “He was very passionate and committed to his career as a firefighter.”
Misner played several positions on his high school’s football team, including wide receiver and defensive back. He was slim, but it didn’t stop him from tackling his opponents, retired football coach Ken Gruendyke said.
“He played with tremendous heart and desire,” Gruendyke said. “He wasn’t the biggest or fastest guy on the team, but he played with great emotion and intensity.”
Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson contributed to this report.
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