Nineteen members of an elite firefighting unit in Arizona were killed Sunday, June 30 while battling a massive wildfire in the central part of the state. Now, members of the faith community in the towns of Yarnell, Glen Isla and Prescott are reaching out to provide any necessary assistance for members of the communities affected by the tragedy.
“Our response has been fairly simple. We are opening up our sanctuary to meet the needs of the community,” said the Rev. Mark R. Tilly, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Prescott, about 30 miles from the Yarnell Hills fire that killed the firefighters. “We expect it to be used for prayer and meditation.”
Tilly said a prayer service took place Monday night at Trinity to remember those who lost their lives in the rapidly-spreading wildfire as well as their friends and loved ones. It also was used as a time to lift up those who remain on the front lines battling the blaze that had grown to more than 8,400 acres and was listed at zero containment Monday evening.
Names of the firefighters killed in the blaze – fed by triple-digit heat, erratic winds and a heavy fuel load – were not released until late Monday. Tilly said nothing indicated any of those who perished were members of Trinity or related to members of the church. However, the communities affected by the massive wildfire are small, and there may be relationships of some kind.
“There will be some people from our church who know some of those who died,” he said. “People here are devastated. Everyone walking around is very upset. We don’t have an explanation for why it happened, but we’re trying to let people know we care. We’re all part of these communities, and we share in this loss.”
The 19 firefighters killed were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; Anthony Rose, 23; Eric Marsh, 43; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Robert Caldwell, 23; Clayton Whitted , 28; Scott Norris, 28; Dustin Deford, 24; Sean Misner, 26; Garret Zuppiger, 27; Travis Carter, 31; Grant McKee, 21; Travis Turbyfill, 27; Jesse Steed, 36; Wade Parker, 22; Joe Thurston, 32; William Warneke, 25; and John Percin, 24.
Only one member of the 20-person crew survived, and that was because he was moving the unit’s truck at the time.
Dave Wasserman, executive presbyter of Grand Canyon Presbytery, said all pastors in the surrounding area – some 80 miles northwest of Phoenix – were contacted to provide prayer and support in the time of crisis. He also indicated that a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) would be arriving today (July 2) to provide assistance to the American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).
Wasserman said the focus is two-fold. PDA will assist with recovery and relief to those in Yarnell who have lost their homes and property to the devastating wildfire. Assistance in Prescott will focus on grief counseling.
“We will provide spiritual and emotional counseling as resources to help out through these difficult times,” Wasserman said, noting the need for people to come together collectively and individually to pray for those affected by the wildfire. “Keep Arizonans, Presbyterians, all those who have lost loved ones in your prayers.”
Eighteen of the 19 men killed were part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott Fire Department. The loss of life in the blaze is the worst wildland firefighter tragedy since 25 died in 1933 in Los Angeles and the most firefighters killed in one incident since the Sept. 11, 2011, World Trade Center attacks when 343 members of the New York Fire Department perished.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called the loss “unbearable” during a Monday news conference and said she understood the pain people are dealing with.
President Barack Obama also lauded the efforts of the fallen firefighters, saying their deaths are heartbreaking and “our thoughts and prayers go out” to their families.
“They were heroes - highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet,” he said in an earlier statement.
Hotshot crews were described as 20-person teams who dig the fire line and cut brush to make a fuel break, those who were closer to the fire than anyone else.
Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said the deaths of the 19 firefighters reduced the size of the department by 20 percent. Reports indicate that firefighters deployed their fire shelters but still were consumed by the intense heat and flames.
“The entire fire department, the entire area, the entire state is being devastated by the magnitude of this incident,” Fraijo said. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”
Authorities think a lightning strike sparked the fire on Friday, and it had burned more than 6,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 structures by Sunday. Crews continue to battle soaring temperatures, ever-shifting winds and intense heat as they seek to contain the deadly and destructive blaze.
Yarnell and Peeples Valley were evacuated, displacing approximately 1,000 people. At least 200 structures had been confirmed as destroyed, most of them homes.
“This is a terrible tragedy, but the people leading the operations still have a big wildfire on their hands,” Tilly said. “It’s a very dangerous situation, one that we have not totally surveyed yet. Those people fighting the wildfire still need our prayers. Many of the people in our communities will need comfort. We don’t really understand the scope of what has happened at this point, but we’re doing all we can to lift them up and help.”