By AMANDA OIEN
A storm rolled into the quiet town of Yarnell, Ariz., on the evening of June 28, 2013. Dark clouds filled the summer sky and lightning struck dry, brush-covered hills.
The lightning ignited a forest fire that burned 8,400 acres.
Of the 350 firefighters assigned to the blaze, 20 were elite Granite Mountain Hotshots trained in tactics to suppress wildfires.
Strong winds shifted unexpectedly on June 30, trapping 19 Hotshots. They did not have time to deploy their last-resort emergency fire shelters and the men were killed in action.
This past December, my family and I traveled to our winter break getaway in Prescott. During our stay, we decided to make the 33-mile drive to Yarnell.
After a beautiful drive through canyons and open farmland populated by horses and cattle, we were greeted with a sign welcoming us to Yarnell.
With a population of just 649, Yarnell exemplifies a close-knit community. When we tried to visit the general store, we found the door locked. A flimsy, slightly crumpled paper taped to the window pane said the owner had gone to lunch.
After much driving to find the town’s makeshift memorial, we found it hidden behind the Ranch House restaurant on Highway 89. On a small hill behind the restaurant, three large photo boards stand on burned ground.
The first two boards share stories and photos for each of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots. Mementos left by family, friends and visitors shadow the displays. Especially touching: fire department baseball hats from all over Arizona and the United States.
The last photo board is tucked farther up on a small slope. The hill looks over Highway 89 to the site where the 19 Hotshots breathed their last breath. You can use provided binoculars to see an American flag that marks the area where the 19 Hotshots fell.
The 100 Club of Arizona is an organization that provides financial assistance to families of public safety and firefighters when serious injury, death or life-altering situations occur.
With hard work by staffers and volunteers, the 100 Club raised $2.2 million through donations and fundraisers. The money will be used to meet the needs of those affected by the Yarnell tragedy.
Funeral expenses, memorial services and counseling are just a few items covered by the club with the community’s help.
If you are in northern Arizona, I encourage you to visit Yarnell.
“Yarnell 19” signs can still be seen inside shops and restaurants. Purple ribbons hang from trees and fences.
Seeing the memorials to the 19 Hotshots is an incredibly moving and humbling experience.