Three Southern California natives were among the 19 members of an elite wildland firefighting unit killed in a blaze near Yarnell, Ariz., Sunday.
Kevin Woyjeck, 21, of Seal Beach, and Hemet natives Billy Warneke, 25, and Chris MacKenzie, went missing with members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew as the evacuated town of Yarnell was ravaged by the blaze.
The deaths of the 19 firefighters is the worst such tragedy in the U.S. since 1933, when 29 lost their lives to a wildfire in Griffith Park.
Woyjeck was following in the footsteps of his father, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Joe Woyjeck, said L.A. County Fire Dept. Inspector Keith Mora.
He started as a Fire Explorer, an L.A. County Fire Department mentorship and training program, and was a paramedic in Los Angeles and Orange counties. He eventually hoped to work side by side with his father, who has been a county fire captain for nearly 30 years, Mora said.
Mora described Woyjeck as a hardworking young man with a great personality and sense of humor. Woyjeck was from Seal Beach, where his family still lives.
”This young man was working with us trying to become like his father,” he said. “For something like this to happen is just a tragedy.”
Chris 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.
“Yesterday I saw about the firefighters in Arizona and I always pay attention, being a former firefighter myself,” said Dav Fulford-Brown, MacKenzie’s friend since childhood and former roommate in Hemet. “I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s Chris’ crew.’ I started calling him and calling him and got no answer.”
MacKenzie was a firefighter just like his father, former Moreno Valley Cal Fire Capt. Mike MacKenzie, the Press-Enterprise reported
“He lived life to the fullest. He was an avid snowboarder and was fighting fire just like his dad,” Fulford-Brown said. “He was finishing his credentials to get promoted and loved the people. It’s an insane tragedy.”
Billy Warneke, 25, had just bought property in Prescott, near where his sister lives, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise. He joined the hotshot crew in April, and was a four-year veteran with the U.S. Marine Corps.
When his grandparents, Jack and Nancy Warneke, saw the news about the fire, they called Warneke’s sister. She told them their grandson and his unit were gone.
“Even though it’s a tragedy for the whole family, he was doing what he loved to do. He loved nature and was helping preserve nature," Nancy Warneke said.
Warneke’s wife is due with their first child in December, Nancy Warneke told the Press-Enterprise.
Los Angeles police officers will wear mourning bands in memory of the 19 firefighters who were killed in the wildfire, according to a statement from Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy for the entire country, and a grim reminder of the dangers that first responders face on a daily basis,” he said.
Los Angeles County firefighters are already wearing mourning bands in honor of Fire Capt. Janet Chatelain, who died June 23 after a battle with lung cancer, said Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Anthony Akins. Flags on all county buildings will fly at half-staff in honor of Woyjeck, according to an order from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Akins said.
Officials lost radio contact with the crew at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, said Steve Skurja, assistant spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. A helicopter crew spotted the bodies, he told The Times.
He said all of the firefighters had deployed their fire shelters -- an emergency measure when there is no escape.
“The fire was very aggressive. It just overtook them,” Skurja said.