Tribute Hike to Thumb Butte focuses on Hotshots' diligence
PRESCOTT - For Bobby Woyjeck, traveling back to Prescott a year after his older brother died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire offered some degree of comfort.
The 20-year-old Long Beach, California resident was among the more than 100 people who took the steep trek up Thumb Butte Monday morning to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Kevin Woyjeck and 18 other members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
"I find so much solace in doing things like this," Bobby said as he walked along the trail. "I live to honor my brother."
John Marsh, the father of Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh, said he found it "very gratifying that people would pay their respects like this."
Looking around he summit, he remembered earlier hikes, in happier times. "I've hiked it often," Marsh said of the Thumb Butte trail. "The first time, it was with Eric."
Of the past year, Marsh said, "I won't lie to you - it's been tough. We moved 2,000 miles to be close to him, and he was our only child."
So, while Marsh said the one-year memorials offer some comfort, he added, "It's sad too, because it brings up the memories."
Woyjeck had a similar reaction to the somber anniversary. "It's been a rollercoaster," he said. "Some days, I do really well, and other days, I'm a wreck. But I do what I can to progress."
Monday's hike was all about honoring and remembering the fallen 19. Retired Prescott Wildland Division officials Todd Rhines and Duane Steinbrink - both instrumental in the Hotshot's development through the years - offered a snapshot of the rigors of working on the elite crew.
As the first, and only, municipal hotshot crew, Rhines said the Granite Mountain team members "knew they had to prove themselves to the other hotshot crews across the country. They were diligent at it."
Thumb Butte was chosen as the site for the Tribute Hike because it had been favorite training spot for the Hotshots.
Rhines said the crew often returned to the Thumb Butte summit three or four times a week. And their hikes were not the usual recreational jaunts. To help keep them in condition for the strenuous work they did fighting fires, Rhines said the Hotshots regularly carried their 65-pound packs on their hikes, and did their rigorous regimen of sit-ups and push-ups at the summit.
Even a year later, hikers showed obvious pain as they spoke about the June 30, 2013 tragedy.
"It seemed like the right thing to do," local resident Tim Hollack said of joining the hike. Noting that he and his wife Diana had moved to Prescott just a year before the Yarnell Hill fire, he said the tragedy hit them hard. "It was just damn emotional," he said.
Phoenix resident Becky Mettee said she made the trip to Prescott for the Tribute Hike as a way to "show support to the families."
Despite the lingering sadness, city officials later emphasized that this week's memorial events were meant to commemorate the Hotshots' lives.
"We're going to focus our comments on what they did and what they stood for," Prescott Firefighter Wade Ward said to group of television and newspaper reporters during a mid-morning press conference at the Hassayampa Inn.
New Prescott Fire Chief Dennis Light noted that even though the Hotshot deaths dealt Prescott "a huge blow," he said the community has worked to weather the storm with "a high degree of resilience."
And just as neighboring fire departments came to the aid of the Prescott Fire Department for weeks after the tragedy, Light said five engine companies from other communities were in town again this week to fill shifts and allow Prescott fire personnel to attend the memorial events.
Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks.