Widow of fallen Arizona firefighter recalls his last day
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Before dawn, Juliann Ashcraft kissed her husband goodbye as he left their home to join his wildfire crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Andrew Ashcraft promised to text her during the day, as always.
Andrew’s first message came about 5:45 a.m. Sunday, about half an hour after he’d left home. Andrew, 29, tall and strapping, was heading to the fire in Yarnell that was threatening homes.
As the crew went into the hills, Juliann took their four children to a nearby pool.
Another text from Andrew arrived: “I think I’m going to be out here a while on this one.”
And later: “It’s getting really wild out here — Peeples Valley is trying to burn down.”
Juliann, a 28-year-old with flowing red hair who also sports a small stud earring in her nose and colorful tattoos, was not fazed. Her husband had fought big fires before, including one a week earlier. She sent him pictures of the kids swimming.
“I’d love to be in a swimming pool right now,” he replied.
Later, he sent her a photo of his crew making camp for lunch with smoke from the fire line rising in the background. He said it was 105 degrees.
It would be the last image she would see of them alive.
“It looks like the inferno,” she replied. Their 4-year-old daughter, Shiloh, sent a message to her father that it was raining; she wished he could see.
“We could really use a little rain down here,” he replied at 3:19 p.m.
Then … nothing.
About 4 p.m., she texted, “Are you sleeping down there?”
She was used to that. Andrew worked 21 days at a time, and was often out of contact, although he made an effort, climbing hills to get reception just to text her an “I love you.”
About 7:30 p.m. her phone started buzzing with friends and family. Was Andrew OK?
About 9 p.m., two sheriff’s deputies arrived at the couple’s suburban duplex with the news. Nineteen firefighters had died, including Andrew.
Juliann spent the next day assembling dental records and information on marks that could be used to identify her husband, including tattoos: their children’s names on his collarbone, their wedding date on his ring finger.
She stopped by the local middle school to see a grief counselor. It was the same school where she and Andrew had met as students before attending Prescott High School together and starting to date. She also saw the other fire widows, many of them young mothers like herself. They knew how she felt, she said, and that was a comfort.
Her husband had joined the Hotshot team three years ago, training for six months to get fit enough, and became rookie of the year. He rose to become “lead saw,” head of a team under Capt. Eric Marsh and Supt. Jesse Steed, driving ahead of the Hotshots’ buggy into the woods with “saw boss” Travis Carter in a pickup truck.
Andrew often stored his belongings in the truck, which is why, Juliann thinks, when a fire official returned his wallet to her Monday, it had not been charred, not even the Safeway sandwich coupon from his last lunch.
Other families were still waiting Tuesday to get belongings retrieved from firefighters’ lockers she said. Marsh, Steed and Carter also were among the dead.
There are still so many unknowns: how her husband died, why he couldn’t outrun the fire or shelter from the blaze.
The couple’s seventh anniversary was coming up, July 22, and he had already ordered her a gift — she’s not sure what it is or when it will arrive.
A travel journal he normally carried with him, full of daily messages to his children, sits on a side table in his bedroom where he left it before this trip.
Juliann is not sure how badly he was burned, and doesn’t think she wants to find out.
“My husband had the most beautiful blue eyes and smile — that’s what I want to remember,” she said as she sat in the grass outside her home, where days before the family had posed for portraits.
She is comforted by the idea that her husband’s remains were transported to the medical examiner’s office with those of his crew, that they remained together in death.
“There was no outside of work for them,” she said. “They loved what they did to the point it was worth it to them being away from the ones they loved to save people and their homes.”
Andrew was born in Orange, Calif., moved to Prescott when he was 5 and grew up playing in a rock band and wanting to be a firefighter, taking after-school classes during high school, she said.
Like Juliann, Andrew was a devout Mormon and friends nicknamed him “Choice.” When the strait-laced young man was teased, he would chalk it up to “my personal choice.” After graduating, he worked as an electrical contractor, but talked to his wife about wanting a more meaningful job, a job he would be proud dying for.
She said he lived by the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ motto: Esse quam videri. “To be, rather than to seem.”
When he came home for a few days off during fire season, she said, he still pitched in washing dishes and tucking the kids into bed, telling them, “Just be better than me.”
Officials from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation based in Boise, Idaho, were in town Tuesday to help Juliann and other widows with finances and support, hoping to pair them up with other fire widows who experienced similar ordeals.
The Ashcraft home was full of family and friends Tuesday, who helped care for the couple’s children. Juliann had worked as a paralegal, but left her job two months ago to stay home with the kids: Ryder, 6; Shiloh; Tate, 2; and Choice, 16 months, named after his father, with whom he shares a birthday.
“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “My focus is on being mother and father. I miss him so much, it’s hard to get my head off the pillow. But when you have four kids, you don’t get a day off.”
She told the children that their father was dead. Ryder likes to say his father is “an angel in me.” But he doesn’t really understand. He is about to lose his first tooth, and when his mother tries to tug it out, he refuses, saying he’s waiting for his father.
She thinks about all the milestones her husband will miss: Ryder’s first day of kindergarten in the fall; Choice’s first steps.
And of course she remembers. The little things, the petty arguments she would have over the phone with him during fire season that she instantly regretted, knowing that it was just missing him and wanting him home that had led to the fight.
“I’m not ready to live without him,” she said as she walked back inside, picking up Choice and showing him a family photo that he clutched, murmuring, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.”
Ashcraft’s yellow collared rookie shirt was framed and hanging on the wall, along with a list of the fires the Hotshots had responded to during his first year and photos of him in his gear, flames raging behind him as he posed, smiling, biceps flexed in triumph.
His picture is everywhere in their house: in the living room kissing the kids, in the hallway holding Juliann, in the bedroom, mugging at their wedding.
She was having the latest family portraits made into a headboard for their bed as an anniversary present. She still is.
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