Tuesday, July 2, 2013 | 12:15 a.m.
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The men were mostly born and bred in this city on the mountains, surrounded by thick forest of piñon pine and chaparral brush, parched by years of drought. They were young men, mostly, 14 of them in their 20s — outdoorsmen, fathers, heroes to the local high school athletes they themselves once were.
“Just kids,” said Joe Peters, the assistant principal at Prescott High School.
Years ago, Peters taught math to some of them and coached others on the school’s football and wrestling teams. “But they were highly trained, the elite of the elite,” he said. “How could we lose that many all at once?”
Nineteen of the 20 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots perished on Sunday, fighting a fierce wilderness fire outside the old gold mining village of Yarnell, 35 miles southwest of here. It was the greatest loss of firefighters in a single disaster since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The fire grew to cover more than 8,000 acres on Monday.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots had fought wildfires already this season, in New Mexico and on the outskirts of Prescott, a blaze called Doce that forced the evacuation of several subdivisions but caused no deaths.
They were trained and often expected to be on the ground for up to 21 days without a break, charging into fire with 40 pounds of gear on their backs. Using chainsaws and pickaxes, their job was to get close to big fires, to dig deep trenches and clear the ground of dried branches and leaves, to try to keep the fire from spreading.
Their food might be brought to them by helicopter. Where they go, experts said, no one else can usually get to.
“It is just too dangerous,” said the city’s fire chief, Dan Fraijo.
But even as the fire continued to rage and the wider community of firefighters remained stunned and in mourning at the loss of life, longtime experts on Western fires said the Yarnell Hill blazes — and the 15 other large fires that remained uncontained from New Mexico to California to Idaho on Monday — were part of the new normal in an increasingly hot and increasingly dry West.
There are 110 hotshot teams in the country: wilderness firefighters, essentially, known for their exhaustive training, punishing standards for physical fitness and ability to work under difficult conditions far from roads. Prescott has the only municipally financed hotshot team, which is part of its fire department. That is largely out of necessity. Wildfires are common here this time of the year, when the temperature soars, the wind gusts fiercely, lightning strikes often and rain seems never to arrive.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots “were hardworking, well-trained, experienced people,” Fraijo said. They knew to pick escape routes and safety zones as they moved through the blazing forest, a lesson learned in the rigorous and repetitive training hotshot members undertake.
When the dead firefighters were found, several, at least, were outside their emergency shelters, which are designed to offer protection from intense heat for a short period and meant to be used only as a last resort. The authorities were still trying to figure out why.
“We don’t know the specifics at this time as to why the events added up the way they did,” said Mary Rasmussen, spokeswoman for the Southwest Area Management Incident Team.
Austin Langham, 26, a Prescott firefighter, said he had worked alongside the Hotshots team. The men teased one another about whose fire teams were faster or hardier, using the friendly rivalry to push themselves. He remembers, when he was growing up, how the high school boys would look up to the crew members who came by on career day, mesmerized.
“It makes you want to do what they do,” Langham said.
The men trained constantly, mapping out escape routes in challenging terrain and using miniature figures and piles of sand to model how different fires could spread. Fraijo said they had a designated safety zone where they were supposed to retreat to if the fire worsened around them.
For some reason, “they never made it there,” he said.
On their first distress call, the men said they were deploying the emergency shelters. It was then, Fraijo said, that “we started praying.”
The sole survivor, whom the authorities had not identified Monday, might have been jockeying equipment and away from the rest of the men when flames overcame them, fire officials said.
Speaking to reporters, Marlin Kuykendall, the mayor of Prescott, said the 19 hotshot team members who died “still had years of their lives left and work to be done.”
One of them was Kevin Woyjeck, 21, the son of a Los Angeles County fire captain who worked seasonally as a hotshot crew member here and in California. Another was Andrew Ashcraft, who lived here with his wife, Juliann, and their four children, one of them a baby.
Jesse Steed, 36, was the captain of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, which he joined in 2002, after serving in the Marine Corps and working as a Prescott firefighter. He, too, died in the fire, said his older brother, Cassidy, 38, a police officer in Washington state.
“Jesse always put his life on the line for people he knew he would never meet,” said Cassidy Steed. He was also a family man — he left a wife and two children behind — and “an adventurer” who liked to ride his mountain bike through the some of the same terrain where he would die.
The hotshot team’s supervisor, Eric Marsh, 43, was also killed. Last year, he told the Cronkite News Service, “There’s really no way to prepare anybody for running in when everyone is running out.”
Throughout the day Monday, several hundred local residents stopped in at Fire Station 7 in Prescott, where a memorial to the fallen firefighters had quickly sprouted. Dozens of bouquets of flowers, photographs and cards with messages like “Our heroes” were laid by the fence outside the parking lot, where some said the victims’ cars were still parked.
Like many others there, Wendy Tollefsen said she often saw the members of the Hotshots squad around Prescott, where they were well known. They were proud to be members of the elite squad they were a part of, she said, and often wore, off duty, their Hotshots shirts.
“They were very proud,” she said. “When I’d see them on my bike, they’d wave.” She began tearing up. “And they’re just all gone.”