Originally Published: July 2, 2013 6:04 a.m.
We've been watching that smoke all summer. Some days the sky was bluer than others. Things were getting bluer all last week, in fact. The Doce fire crews and the families in harm's way were in our hearts.
And the situation had improved. As late as Saturday, the wildfire was better than 90 percent contained, and there was no loss of life or structures. It seemed that treating everyone affected by the fire to a terrific Fourth of July party in Prescott was in order.
Prescottonians - at a mile high elevation - have spent the summer how we always do: active in the outdoors, not in. Even during last week's heat wave.
So we were personally aware that crews were on the fireline in both the heat of day and in the dead of night, around the clock, to protect all of our central Arizona communities. Just by watching the changing smoke patterns and the emergency planes flying overhead, we could tell if it was a bad day or a good day in the fight.
As the Doce fire was winding down, on Friday a new wildfire - one caused by lightning some 15 miles south of Prescott near the town of Yarnell - had ignited. But by the weekend the Arizona heat was starting to let up at last, and cool breezes and rain came in.
Then came Sunday. Word spread through town. Through text messages and emails and online links and devastated Oh-my-God-! reactions.
The Prescott Fire Department's Granite Mountain Hotshots lost 19 members from one crew on one battle. It's the worst loss of U.S. firefighters since 9/11. The fire, which started two days earlier, on Sunday became the eighth deadliest fire in U.S. history.
The loss was compounded with updates on the grave jeopardy facing the town of Yarnell. Some two hundred structures have already been lost, hundreds more are threatened, are there is zero containment on the fire.
The news was immediately crippling.
We bore witness to the Granite Mountain Hotshots' bravery just last week. They had been among the first crews to attack the Doce fire that began June 18 in the Prescott National Forest off Iron Springs Road.
The Hotshots' job description is pretty tough to forget when you meet the guys and gals up close and personal. To put it simply: you know how there's that one special crew that goes into the hottest and most dangerous parts of wildfires, not to mention in the toughest terrain possible? That's these guys.
They carry 40 pounds on their back, may hike in seven miles or more to where they need to work, and work up to 14 hours. And the past few days have been record-hot in Arizona.
Last week they and all agency crews had just kicked the hell out of the Doce fire, and had saved the homes of hundreds of families in the Prescott community.
"Their crews of 20 are typically among the first ones in there," Prescott firefighter Wade Ward said one week ago of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as crews were getting the upper hand on the Doce fire. "They're on the front lines, and take a direct line of attack to the fire."
We lost 19 Hotshots on Sunday.
It's an unimaginable loss. We'll hear their names and share in their families' grief in the coming days.
The Town of Yarnell had just celebrated Yarnell Daze. For a town populated with fewer than 1,000 people, Yarnell knows how to have fun. Yarnell Daze on a Saturday this past May featured a walking parade (baby strollers, wagons and horses - no vehicles), a scavenger hunt, art and car shows, games for kids, a beer garden for adults, and live local bands. The ice cream eating contest started at 1:45. "We're inviting everybody to come down and see what a good time a small town can put on," Jerry Florman, Yarnell Daze chair, said.
And if you haven't been up and down Highway 89's Yarnell Hill, which descends 2,500 feet in four miles, you're missing out on one of Arizona's great scenic rides.
But as the Yarnell Hill fire rages uncontained, Yarnell, Peeples Valley and Morrison remain on alert.
We grieve for the loss of 19 brave firefighters, who define courage and community and a dedication to helping others. And we pray for their families and loved ones, who are surrounded by neighbors near and far.
We mourn the loss of homes, livelihoods and security in Yarnell and the surrounding communities. We stand beside them, and pray with them.
Flags will fly at half-staff through Wednesday in memory of the fallen firefighters. The Prescott Fire Department will continue to fight blazes and will save lives and homes. They will rise above this tragedy, and will serve with unmatched honor.
We pray tonight for the Prescott and Yarnell communities. We share in their anguish. We will begin the process of healing, and we will do it together.