Tragedy in Arizona hits close to home

by nathan oster

The pain of losing 19 highly trained firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots extended far beyond the city limits of Prescott, Ariz., where they were members of that community’s fire department.

Across the nation there was mourning within the entire wildland firefighting community, which includes the members of the Wyoming Hotshots, who train in Greybull and serve under the leadership of Matt Prentiss of Basin.

The Wyoming Hotshots were fighting a fire in Colorado when the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives while battling the 2,000-acre Yarnell Hill fire that ignited south of Prescott.

It was the deadliest wildfire in the United States in 80 years — and the worst loss of life for an American fire department since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We were devastated,” Prentiss said of his crew’s reaction to the news.  “We had worked with (the Granite Mountain Hotshots) a few times on different fires. Our relationship was strictly a working relationship, but they were a great crew … we enjoyed working with them.”

He added, “The Hotshot community is actually a pretty small one and (their loss) was felt by all of us.”

A memorial service for the fallen firefighters was held Tuesday in Arizona.

A spokeswoman for the Prescott National Forest said it appeared that the 19 were engaged in a “direct attack” — getting close to the fire and trying to create a break to starve it of fuel — when they were overwhelmed by the windblown fire, which prevented them from returning to their emergency fire shelters.

While stunned and saddened by the news, Prentiss said his resolve remains as strong as ever.

He said he was “18 or 19” and “looking for an adventure” when he got introduced to firefighting in California.  It was during his early years as a firefighter that he met his wife, Jennifer, who was also a firefighter at the time.

Prentiss has since climbed to the rank of superintendent of the Wyoming Hotshots, which consists of about 20 crew members, ranging in age from 20 on up to the mid 30s.  He’s been in that role since 2008 and doesn’t plan to leave it anytime soon.

“I’m grateful to have the job I have,” he said. “I have a really good crew; it’s a privilege to work with some outstanding, motivated individuals who work hark. Plus I really enjoy working with the younger guys, teaching them how to fight fires.”

When reached Tuesday, Prentiss and the Hotshots were fighting a fire near Pagosa Springs, Colo.  They did spend some time at home during the long holiday weekend.  In fact, with several Hotshots hailing from Cody, they were a late entry in the Stampede parade.

Through their efforts in Cody, the Hotshots raised more than $8,700 for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which stands in the gap between the day of the accident and the time benefits kick in for the survivors of the lost firefighters.

“They really support the wildland fire community,” Prentiss said of the foundation.

Meanwhile, the task of fighting fires continues.  Prentiss said this year’s been very similar to last year. “A pretty active fire season, especially in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico,” he said, estimating the Hotshots to be “a little less than halfway through” their season, which typically runs from mid May through mid October.


Wife’s perspective

Jennifer Prentiss said news of the Prescott tragedy travelled quickly within firefighting circles. Very soon after it happened, cell phone towers were brought in so firefighters could let their families know that they were OK.

“Speaking for all the fire wives (of the Wyoming Hotshots), we were all just shocked,” she said. “There had never been a wildland firefighting tragedy like this … in the sense that almost an entire crew was lost. It just changes the way you think about everything and puts an even greater amount of pressure on guys like my husband and his top assistant, Beau Kidd, who has family in Powell.

“We have always known those two were in charge of 20 lives, but when 20 people lose their lives elsewhere, it makes you understand the potential risk and the amount of stress involved in making sure (the firefighters) make it safely home to their families.  Especially with it falling on a long holiday weekend where most people were celebrating with their loved ones, it was extra hard knowing there were those families out there who lost loved ones in the fire.”

She expanded on what her husband said about the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

“Everyone said, that was a very good crew,” she said. “Not that it would have meant anything less if it wasn’t … but I heard one of the  guys saying, ‘Why that crew? It doesn’t make sense that it was that crew.’  Some crews are notorious for not being as safe as others. But not that one. They had a reputation as a safe, good crew of firefighters. So it really hits home, with it happening to those guys.”

If you’d like to help, several online sites are taking donations, including the Granite Mountain Hotshots Family Fund, the Yarnell Emergency Fire Fund, the 100 Club of Arizona, the American Red Cross, and of course, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which was the one chosen by the Wyoming Hotshots.