Guest post from NFPA's Southwest Regional Director, Ray Bizal
Last week, I attended the memorial in Prescott Valley for the 19 wildland firefighters who died at Yarnell Hill, Arizona on June 30, 2013. It was a huge event for the fire service in Arizona to put together in such a short time frame, given the fact that they are still battling wildfires, and the chiefs have their conference coming up July 23.
It was held at the arena in Prescott Valley, which was unable to hold the entire crowd inside. Most of us on the inside were family, friends or fire service. There were seating areas set up outside of the arena, with jumbo screens to watch and listen. When the memorial ended, it was nearly 100 degrees outside and the outside seating area was full. Thousands attended this event, and the logistics were done well. The Red Cross was stationed outside and in, providing all sorts of assistance. Security was high but unobtrusive.
I saw our fire service friends from all over. I happened to park next to Paul Cooke, the Director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. He was with a large contingency from his office. I met with fire service members from CA, OR, CO, NV, NM, and of course AZ. I had a chance to talk also with Ernie Mitchell from the USFA and folks from FEMA region 9. My most touching conversation was with the Prescott Division Chief Darrell Willis, who commands the Granite Mountain Hot Shots for the Prescott Fire Department. Chief Willis was just the leader you would expect.
I saw department patches from just about every state in the U.S., London, Quebec, and Toronto. And there were shirts of many Hot Shot crews from around the country. I am sure people were there representing all of our NFPA regions.
During the event, I sat next to the Crisis Management Officer from the Phoenix Fire Department, and on the other side, I sat next to a mother and her young boy who was stepson of one of the fallen.
This was a fitting tribute to these firefighters who paid the ultimate sacrifice – they exhibited uncommon valor as Vice President Biden said in his speech. The Master of Ceremony was Tim Hill, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of AZ. He did an outstanding job getting through the ceremony with great sensitivity. Division Chief Darrell Willis (head of the hot shots) paid tribute to his hot shots, followed by Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo. Chief Fraijo paid tribute to his department and the hot shots, presenting members of the families of all 19 firefighters with both American and Arizona flags. It was clear that both of these chiefs felt a tremendous amount of loss.
Mayor Marlin Kuykendall, Governor Jan Brewer, and Vice President Biden all paid tribute to these fine firefighters in a heartfelt way. IAFF Prescott Chapter VP Dan Bates really hit home, addressing the families (and extended fire service family) of these 19 young men. Of course, Harold Schaitberger also spoke and provided comfort and medal’s to the families of the fallen.
The most touching presentation was the reading of the Hot Shot’s prayer by the only surviving member of the crew, Brendan McDonough. As their watch, he gave them the evacuation order when the wind changed so quickly. Unfortunately, they were unable to escape. He is a brave man and a wonderful soul to have been able to say the prayer at this memorial. I cannot imagine what he is going through. His character is not being defined by the crisis he endured; his character is being defined by his tremendous reaction to that crisis. It was a moving gesture.
At the end of the memorial, after the Final Alarm and Taps, the Arizona Fire Fighters and Public Safety Massed Pipes and Drums played Amazing Grace. This corps was the largest I have ever seen assembled, over 200 members participating. I believe that this memorial will help the family, friends and co-workers move along in the grieving process.
This tragic incident has touched many around the world, as was evident in the distances traveled by many attendees. It even reaches us in southern California, as one of the lost Hot Shot’s, Kevin Woyjeck, attended Los Alamitos High School where my wife works. In the fall, I will be speaking again at the high school Fire Technology class, once attended by Kevin. I will present them with a program from the memorial, my ticket to enter, and the purple ribbon that was provided to everyone.
It truly was fulfilling event honoring the 19 fallen. I felt honored to be there representing NFPA. I trust that we can learn from this incident to help provide strategies, equipment and apparatus that will help reduce the risks faced by wildland firefighters.