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The Yarnell Hills fire started with a lightning strike on Friday, June 28.

September 27, 2013
By Robert Chatton

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The Yarnell Hills fire started with a lightning strike on Friday, June 28. Fanned by winds, the fire grew quickly and, with the town of Yarnell, Ariz., threatened, residents were evacuated. Calls went out for resources and, on Sunday morning, the Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew started to fight the fire.

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Nineteen pairs of boots, equipment packs and helmets, representing the 19 fallen firefighters, are displayed at the memorial. The memorial took place at the largest building in town – a hockey arena – that held 6,000 people. More onlookers gathered outside.


 

Early that evening, the world would learn that 19 members of the Hot Shot crew were killed in the line of duty while battling that wildfire. The Yarnell Hills fire was the deadliest fire in Arizona’s history, with the largest loss of American firefighters since 9-11.

The Granite Mountain Interagency Hot Shot crew is a division of the Prescott Fire Department, in Prescott, Ariz. The group received its Hot Shot designation in 2008, joining an elite group of wildland firefighters in the United States, where there are 110 Hot Shot crews. The Granite Mountain crew is one of just a few Hot Shot crews that is attached to a municipal fire department; it is based at Station 7 in Prescott.

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My family and I were heading to Arizona from our home in Pitt Meadows, B.C., for a vacation and, knowing we would be there around the time of the memorial service, I felt it would be appropriate to attend.

The top news story around Arizona and in the southwest United States was, of course, the situation in Yarnell. An incident management team was assembled specifically for the memorial, and preparations for the service began. This would take significant planning, especially once it was announced that U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden would attend.

I wasn’t prepared for the support the public showed for the families of the fallen members, the Prescott firefighters, and firefighters in general – from the flight attendants who assured me that my dress uniform was hung neatly, to the woman who gently tapped me on the shoulder and said she was sorry to hear what had happened. This continued whenever someone recognized me as a firefighter.

The memorial service was set for Tuesday, July 9, in Prescott Valley – a few kilometres outside of Prescott – at a hockey arena, the largest venue in town. As a frequent visitor to the Phoenix area, I had forged relationships with some members of local fire departments. I e-mailed a friend, Capt. Tony Legamaro of the Goodyear Fire Department, and asked if he was going to the service, as I was hoping to share a ride. Tony wasn’t in town but the department was sending a contingent of members and they extended an invitation for me to ride with them.

We left early for the 11 a.m. service and, a couple of hours later, arrived at the site of the memorial. As I entered the town, flags were all at half-mast (in fact, all across Arizona, flags flew at half-mast and would remain there until July 19), signs on businesses all expressed condolences to the families of the 19 members. People lined the streets with flags, flowers and banners, showing their support. Parking areas were well laid out and numerous police from across the state ensured everything flowed smoothly.

As we walked toward the arena, we passed hundreds of apparatuses from various departments, agencies and organizations across Arizona and other parts of the United States – engines, ladders, wildland engines, tenders and staff vehicles. There were forestry units and Hot Shot trucks from across the nation.

Uniformed firefighters and emergency-services personnel from all branches and parts of North America attended, from the FDNY to Los Angeles County, and from Seattle to Houston (which had lost four of its own the month prior). Several departments from British Columbia sent members and I saw guys from Toronto, Montreal and Regina. Canada respectfully showed its support for our fallen colleagues, their families, the Prescott Fire Department and the citizens of Prescott. When someone was recognized as a Canadian, a thank-you and a handshake usually followed.

Outside the arena, two huge television screens mounted on semi trailers simultaneously broadcast the service. The arena holds only 6,000 people and those seats were reserved for family, friends and firefighters. With expected numbers of more than 6,000, the screens ensured that all those in attendance could still see the service. Several television stations broadcast the ceremony live.

Security was tight, given the vice-president’s attendance, but everything was well organized and flowed quickly. An honour guard from Prescott Fire, as well as a combined guard and massed pipes and drums from across North America had come together and were completing last-minute preparations.

Entering the arena, we walked by the stage and saw a powerful sight: 19 portraits of the fallen members stretched across the stage. In front of the portraits were 19 pairs of boots, equipment packs and helmets with the Granite Mountain Hot Shots logo on them. The speakers and dignitaries entered the stage and took their places. The Greater Arizona Congress choir began to sing, and throughout the ceremony would provide music at appropriate times.

Seating on the floor was reserved for the families, with the section up front reserved for the Prescott Fire Department. The fire department members and past members of the Hot Shots were led in and seated, and the service began.

Tim Hill, president of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, was the ceremony’s emcee. Speakers included Prescott Fire Chief Dan
Fraijo; Division Chief Darrell Willis, who oversaw the Hot Shots; Prescott Mayor Kuykendall; Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer; and Vice-President Biden. Also in attendance were Sen. John McCain and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. All the speakers gave eloquent eulogies and paid tribute to the fallen, their families and those left behind.

Chief Fraijo and Division Chief Willis spoke very highly of their crew and did an excellent job with such a difficult task. However, the most powerful speaker was the single remaining member of the Hot Shots, Brendan McDonough.

The strength it took to stand on that stage is a tribute to the support McDonough received from those around him. I could not imagine the pain and grief McDonough must feel, some of which was apparent when he read the Hot Shots Prayer, then said, “I really miss my brothers.”

Biden delivered a strong and clearly heartfelt speech, explaining that as unbelievable as it may sound, “the day will come when the memory of your husband, son, dad or brother will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.” Biden spoke from personal experience as his first wife and daughter were killed in a vehicle crash, and his family endured a fire years ago.

With help from the honour guard, Prescott firefighters presented each family with an American flag, ceremonial pulaski and the Firefighters Medal of Honor. A musical tribute followed, showing a snapshot into the lives of the fallen 19. Images of the men working fires, spending time with family, as well as enoying some humorous moments, helped to share a sliver of who the 19 men were and how much they will be missed. This was followed with a military flyby with U.S. navy Harrier jets in the traditional missing-man formation.

Then, as is tradition, a bell rang out its melancholy sound across the hushed arena, signalling the final alarm for each of the 19 fallen members. The pipers and drummers marched in and, after Taps, joined the choir, finishing with Amazing Grace.

The honour guard dismissed all of the firefighters in attendance and we lined the street in a sea of blue to salute each of the 19 families as their bus left the service.

The memorial was a humbling and amazing service that went off without a hitch. While more than 6,000 friends, family and firefighters attended indoors, many thousands more watched outside, including hundreds more fire and emergency services personnel; it was an incredible show of support that the people of Arizona demonstrated. This was also evident a few days before when thousands lined the streets as a procession of 19 hearses returned the fallen members to Prescott in preparation for the memorial. Walking back to the van, people thanked us for our service and passed along their condolences for the loss of the 19 firefighters.

Over the next few days, private services were held across the United States for the 19 fallen members. The fire service continued its duty to the fallen with members standing watch over them until their funeral. Numerous Arizona departments had done that from the day the remains arrived at the medical examiner’s until the crew members were laid to rest or until they left the state. Those who left were looked after by another department when they landed. Also, numerous departments sent apparatuses and staff to cover the Prescott firefighters and staff their stations, allowing them time to grieve.

It was a long day and one that left me emotionally drained, but I was honoured to have been a part of the service. We arrived safely back in Goodyear and got home to our own families.

A week later, my wife and I drove back through Prescott. We stopped at Station 7 where a memorial had started around the Hot Shots station. It was an incredible sight, with T-shirts, posters, flags, mementoes and notes from the families, citizens and firefighters from all over North America. We met a couple of retired captains and they took us over to Prescott Station 1 where we helped their charity for the families by buying some T-shirts. Peoria firefighters covered the station, with one Prescott member acting as a local guide.

We continued south and headed through Yarnell. The devastation was everywhere, with a large portion of the town lost. We stopped at a local business so we could help to support the townspeople; again, the owner found out I am a Canadian firefighter and we were welcomed with open arms. We were glad to be able to help someone who was directly affected by the fire. There is no doubt that the efforts of those who fought the Yarnell Hills fire, including the members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, helped to protect that business. This happened again at a roadside memorial at the entrance to Yarnell. Here we saw the location where the crew was overrun by the fire – a very powerful moment that required time to reflect.

I hope never to attend another LODD service, but I hope especially that our profession never sees another such large loss of firefighters. In the coming months, we will see reports on what occurred and whether or not there are lessons to be learned. We owe it to the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots to learn from that tragic event so we can be safer doing what we do.


RobertChatton  
   

Robert Chatton has been active in the fire service for 25 years. He first joined the service as a volunteer firefighter with the Shawnigan Lake Fire Department on Vancouver Island in B.C. In 2006, he was hired as the assistant fire chief of training for the Pitt Meadows Fire Rescue Service, a composite department in lower mainland B.C. Contact Robert at rchatton@pittmeadows.bc.ca


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